Jul 27

Women's soccer seemingly has options for growth

Plenty of people believe in women's professional soccer as a concept. The question is how many believe in Women's Professional Soccer as a league or in each other's visions for how the league should look.

How women's soccer takes shape in the months between the bright spotlight of the World Cup and the slightly dimmer spotlight of the Olympics depends on several key players:

Potential WPS expansion owners
The names aren't known, but league CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas said WPS is talking with parties whose interest grew during the World Cup.

"[The Cup] has buoyed our continuing expansion discussions with West Coast teams, which have been ongoing since early this year," Eileraas said.

WPS currently has six teams and is operating under a waiver from U.S. Soccer, which normally requires eight teams for a first-division league.

Dan Borislow
The magicJack owner stepped up when no local buyer could be found for the Washington Freedom, and he moved the team to Boca Raton, Fla. He quickly established he wasn't one to follow league precedent.

He hasn't hired a traditional front office, handling his own PR. His coach moved to other duties after three games, replaced by a rotating band of people -- including himself -- until he settled on making Abby Wambach a player-coach. His general manager, 1999 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Briana Scurry, is no longer with the team.

Borislow has been fined, his team was deducted a point in the standings and the league banned him from any coaching role after receiving a grievance from the league's union over the way he treated players.

He's fed up.

"There are so many haters and non-business people involved," Borislow said. "Haters are selfish and don't care about anything other than attempting to hurt someone."

And he's quick to say his bankroll has been vital to the league, telling The Palm Beach Post earlier this year: "If we go away, they don't have a league."

Borislow's star-studded roster includes eight players named to the U.S. squad for the Women's World Cup (counting both Lindsay Tarpley, who was injured and replaced, and Megan Rapinoe, whom Borislow acquired last month in a trade with Philadelphia) and he has a couple of players from other national teams.

Still, others in WPS think the league could move forward without his participation.

"The issues that the league and Borislow have had, those will get resolved," Atlanta Beat owner T. Fitz Johnson said. "It's going to take some time. The league is not dependent on that resolution."

Added Eileraas, "The 2012 WPS season is not dependent on Mr. Borislow's participation."

And yet owners are leaving the door open as well, not begrudging Borislow for having a different way of doing things.

"We [owners] don't all agree all the time," Philadelphia owner David Halstead said. "I would consider Fitz a very close friend, but in many instances, we don't agree on how we ought to run Atlanta and Philly. But I respect what he's doing. … It's the same with Dan. Dan will run his business different than I run mine. We have to trust Dan that his heart is in the right place by growing women's soccer. It's a separate operating entity, so he's free to run his business how he wants within the context of league rules."

Major League Soccer
The men's league is stable, and it has a few footholds in the women's game with affiliates in lower divisions.

Borislow thinks WPS should look to MLS for a takeover or merger.

"This is the only chance I believe is available for many reasons," Borislow said. "The league is vehemently opposed to this, not knowing if they do not do this, it is doomed."

WPS owners have kept open lines of communications with MLS for years.

"We're very friendly with MLS, and if something comes of that, that'd be fantastic," Johnson said.

But MLS downplays talk of any substantial involvement.

"While all of us at Major League Soccer are supporters of WPS, MLS is not engaged in any discussions regarding ownership of WPS clubs," said MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche, he himself a veteran of women's soccer front offices.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, who have an MLS expansion team and a long-established women's team in the mostly amateur W-League, would be a logical candidate to have an MLS and WPS operation under the same roof. But Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi says the women's team isn't likely to move into WPS.

"We're planning to stick with the W-League," Lenarduzzi said. "We've been happy with the way the W-League has evolved."

The W-League
Over the winter, the W-League's Buffalo Flash became WPS' Western New York Flash. But don't expect the W-League, which operates under the large umbrella of United Soccer Leagues (USL), to let itself be a training ground for future WPS teams.

"We would certainly be open to some type of collaboration with WPS and/or its teams but there is no such dialogue ongoing at present," USL president Tim Holt said. "While we did not stand in the way of Buffalo moving to WPS last year, we are also not interested in developing markets and franchises for another league without any consideration to USL and the committed teams in the W-League that provide this platform."

Instead, the W-League is exploring the possibility of its own pro division, though not one that would compete head-to-head with WPS.

Already, the W-League has a strong presence in Canada, with several Canadian national team members still listing their club affiliations with the Vancouver Whitecaps or Ottawa Fury. Those teams are in the semifinals this weekend along with the Atlanta Silverbacks and the Seattle Sounders.

WPSL
Despite sharing three letters of its abbreviation with WPS, the Women's Premier Soccer League is not affiliated with the pro league.

But WPS has an imprint in the WPSL. The Boston Breakers' affiliate, Boston Aztec, is in this weekend's WPSL semifinals along with the Chicago Red Stars, a former WPS club.

And like the W-League, the WPSL is mostly amateur but is thinking of launching a modest pro division. The WPSL would start with a focus on the West Coast, where the Orange County Waves, a pro team rising from the ashes of the WPS's defunct Los Angeles Sol, have reached the league semifinals.

WPSL commissioner Jerry Zanelli says his league is poised to expand from 62 teams to more than 70 in the wake of the World Cup. He says he has productive relationships with some WPS owners. Not with the W-League, though.

Sponsors
Leagues and teams are seeing a surge of interest since the World Cup. Johnson says the Beat has attracted new sponsors for small items such as the game ball.

That doesn't mean everything is suddenly easy.

"Are people busting down doors to give me checks?" Halstead said. "No, not really. But conversations are easier to have."

Players also might not be looking at huge checks to supplement their modest pay from WPS or even smaller pay from the W-League and WPSL. But they're finding more doors open as well.

"Corporate America -- and other countries as well -- have recognized what these individuals are about," player agent Dan Levy said. "People now know another generation of U.S. soccer stars -- not just Mia, Brandi and Julie but Abby, Hope, Alex and Lauren."