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Thursday, October 27, 2011
WPS aims to survive more turmoil

By Beau Dure

Late last year, Women's Professional Soccer found a way to keep going without the active involvement of John Hendricks, the owner who had launched the WUSA of the early 2000s and kept the Washington Freedom afloat in the five years between pro leagues.

Now, WPS has decided it can go without owner Dan Borislow, who bought a majority stake in the Freedom from Hendricks, moved the team to South Florida, renamed it after his core product magicJack, stocked it with world-class players, and clashed with the league throughout a tempestuous season.

With the termination of magicJack, a decision made by the WPS Board of Governors on Tuesday and announced Thursday, the league stands at five teams. That number could increase with expansion, or drop to four if the Boston Breakers are unable to finalize a deal to bring in new investors before the league goes through full-scale offseason roster shuffling.

League officials have been confident that Boston will return. The WPS had also expressed confidence about magicJack until this week, but the situations are totally different. The magicJack team had all the capital it needed, thanks to Borislow, but the owner could never get on the same page as his peers in the league.

The league's new CEO, Jennifer O'Sullivan, was not available for comment Thursday.

"It is certainly a sad day for magicJack fans and fans of the WPS," former magicJack player/coach Abby Wambach said in a statement Thursday. "I want to personally thank Dan Borislow and the fans of South Florida for their support and I hope to get an opportunity to come back to South Florida to play in the future. We love this game and want what is best for women's soccer so we will continue to do whatever it takes to help it grow."

The WPS, which started in 2009, has a history of teams departing. The Los Angeles Sol left after the debut season. St. Louis Athletica collapsed partway into the 2010 season. FC Gold Pride ceased operation after the 2010 season, while the Chicago Red Stars moved to the less ambitious WPSL.

Philadelphia Independence owner David Halstead isn't worried about the league's size.

"The Independence is moving forward," Halstead said. "If we have four teams, we're going to play in a league with four teams."

But he doesn't think it'll come to that. He thinks the league will have at least five and maybe as many as seven teams.

"We're having really good conversations with expansion candidates," Halstead said. "I believe we're going to have a team or two coming in."

If the Breakers are unable to continue, New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC will be the only original WPS member in the league's fourth season.

But the loss of the last vestiges of the Washington Freedom severs a tie back to the auspicious launch of topflight women's soccer, the WUSA, in 2001. John Hendricks played a major public role in the league's launch. He and wife Maureen Hendricks kept the Freedom operating in exhibitions and the second-tier W-League from 2004 to 2008, then shepherded the still-intact club into the WPS in 2009.

With magicJack's termination, the Hendricks family's ties to the league are gone. The family had maintained a small ownership stake in magicJack but has receded from public participation, declining several interview requests throughout the year.

"I don't think there was a single reason for them to sell the franchise," said SkyBlue FC president and CEO Thomas Hofstetter by email. "In fact, they were still part owner in the magicJack team. I think their decision was more based in their personal lives. They had a lot of things going on outside soccer, and the Hendricks have given a lot to soccer in the U.S. Their reason to leave was completely different and outside the league compared to other teams in the past."

Hofstetter remains optimistic that the WPS will look toward growth, not contraction, in the future.

"WPS has an extensive expansion pipeline," Hofstetter said. "We expect to grow a lot on the West Coast for the 2013 season. There is still a very good chance that we will have a team join us for the 2012 season from the East Coast.

"As to the magicJack termination, it reflects our continued commitment to the league and to be prepared to make tough decisions. Over the past three years, we had many situations where we had to make tough decisions, but always stayed consistent that the league is more important than any of the teams. We have very committed ownership groups and are looking forward to another exciting season next year."

WPS and Borislow had talked their way back from the brink at least once. A summer of escalating conflicts over operating costs, media obligations and Borislow's stint coaching his own team led to a lawsuit Borislow filed to fend off termination. The feuding sides moved closer to reconciliation afterward.

Former WPS CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas, a frequent object of Borislow's ire, stepped down at the end of the season, citing family reasons.

Borislow issued a statement on Thursday in which he said he couldn't persuade other owners to focus on better pay for players and unspecified support for the U.S. national team's Olympic participation next summer. Halstead said the owners were going through offseason talks to see if they could go in the same direction, and "it became apparent that was not the case."

The termination leaves many of the sport's biggest names in limbo -- Wambach, Hope Solo, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone, Megan Rapinoe and others who have made or are on the verge of making national teams. Halstead isn't worried that the loss of a deep-pocketed owner will diminish the league's talent pool.

"I don't know how many players Dan had under contract," Halstead said. "Everybody will work to keep those players in the league and pull them on their own roster."

Longtime U.S. defender and ESPN commentator Cat Whitehill, who played for the Atlanta Beat this season and is on the players union's board, didn't think the decision to terminate was easy.

"While we are sad to see magicJack go, I trust the WPS went through the proper steps and made the proper decision," Whitehill said. "I do know a lot went into their decision, and it was an extremely hard one as Dan Borislow financially enabled our league to keep running with six teams last year. I am glad it wasn't my decision to make, and I know that when the WPS executive committee made their decision, they made it with the players' best interest in mind."