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Monday, November 28, 2011
Answering the tough questions

By Beau Dure

Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) is facing a lot of questions these days, with the answers checking in on the complex side. Keeping tabs on the lawsuit against the league, and now the drama with U.S. Soccer, isn't simple. But following a sporting event is always easier with a scorecard, so we've broken down where the issues stand.

The issue: WPS vs. U.S. Soccer over Division I sanctioning

Why does the WPS need to be sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation?

Simply put, it's just following the rules of soccer's international governing body, FIFA, and of U.S. Soccer. There are standards that have to be met to be considered a top-tier league, and attaining -- and keeping -- that sanction means the league is operating properly.

What's the sticking point between U.S. Soccer and WPS?

Whether WPS has enough teams to compete as a Division I league, which according to U.S. Soccer rules is eight. WPS has obtained a waiver in the past to operate with six or seven teams. With magicJack's termination from the league, the WPS is down to five: SkyBlue FC, the Western New York Flash, the Boston Breakers, the Philadelphia Independence and the Atlanta Beat.

What would it mean for WPS to lose its Division I sanction for 2012?

A petition from Flash president/player Alex Sahlen puts it this way: "Without the support and Division 1 sanctioning of the league, the league will not be able to uphold and retain its Top domestic and National Team players as well as International Stars."

Could the league be sanctioned as a Division II league instead of Division I?

No one has publicly ruled out this possibility, but many of the same standards that apply to Division I also apply to Division II. U.S. Soccer issued Division II men's standards in 2010, involving such issues as minimum market size and number of teams, that would be difficult for WPS to meet. In any case, the difference between Division I and Division II might matter little to casual fans. The question is whether it would matter to players, particularly U.S. national team stars. Most of the U.S. team has not signed with WPS teams for next season.

What would happen if the league played without U.S. Soccer sanction?

Anyone who participates would be risking the wrath of international organizer FIFA. Some leagues have opted to break away in the past. In the U.S., the National Professional Soccer League operated as an unsanctioned men's league in 1967, but peacefully merged with a competitor to form the North American Soccer League, which later had a boom period in the 1970s fueled by Pelé and other international stars. An unsanctioned men's league also has sprung up in Indonesia, attracting a few foreign players despite threats from the Indonesian soccer federation and the risk of bans from FIFA.

It's unlikely that anyone with a U.S. national team future, from Abby Wambach to young fringe players, would risk their World Cup and Olympic aspirations by playing for WPS in open defiance of U.S. Soccer. A U.S. Soccer spokesman would not comment on the prospect of WPS playing without sanction.

Is U.S. Soccer under pressure to give WPS a Division I sanction with only five teams?

Yes. Sahlen's petition is aimed squarely at U.S. Soccer, saying the league needs to play just one year with five teams before expanding anew. Former Chicago Red Stars owner Jack Cummins is blunt: "U.S. Soccer is either being bureaucratically pedantic saying we need at least six teams or it's pushing the league into the grave," he told The New York Times.

ESPN 2011 Women's World Cup analyst Kate Markgraf, who played for U.S. World Cup, Olympic and national teams, as well as the WUSA and WPS, took to Twitter to point out the league's importance in long-term player development: "If there was no WUSA- there might hv been no [Shannon] Boxx n Wambach-2 of the best. #ussoccer who might u miss out on if no #wps? #if u can't do it better support and improve what u got."

Again, a U.S. Soccer spokesman declined to comment.

Would U.S. stars consider skipping the 2012 WPS season even if the league gets its Division I sanction?

Possibly. The Olympics -- for which the USA has not yet qualified -- pose a greater scheduling challenge in 2012 than the World Cup posed in 2011. The women's soccer tournament runs from July 25 to Aug. 9, usually the stretch run of the WPS season. The team will also take a couple of weeks, possibly longer, to prepare for the Games and play some friendlies. Finally, players might not want to risk injury, particularly if they stand to lose financially. Then again, injuries can happen anywhere -- Abby Wambach missed the 2008 Olympics after breaking her leg in an exhibition leading up to the Games.

Are any other women's leagues seeking Division I or Division II sanctioning for 2012?

Though the W-League and WPSL have had occasional professional teams, they are not professional leagues. The W-League's parent organization, United Soccer Leagues, operates a Division III men's professional league. Its other leagues, primarily the W-League and the men's PDL, are not professional and not assigned a division. Though the W-League is keeping options open for the future, it is not bidding for professional sanctioning in 2012. The W-League and WPSL have fielded professional teams in the past, but neither league has been willing to declare itself a competitor to WPS.

What options would players have without WPS?

Many WPS players are already spending the offseason playing in European leagues, which have grown in the eight years since the WUSA folded. They're not paying substantial wages in most cases, but they make it worthwhile for players such as the USA's Ali Krieger and France's Sonia Bompastor to spurn WPS to play for powerhouse clubs such as FFC Frankfurt and Lyon. For the most part, European leagues can only dream of WPS attendance -- attendance for Sunday's German top division games ranged from 530 to 2,560, the latter for a massive showdown of top clubs Turbine Potsdam and Duisburg -- but affiliations with sponsors and men's clubs defray some of the costs.

How likely is WPS to get a sixth team in place within U.S. Soccer's 15-day window?

Impossible to say. CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan says the league will bring in a sixth team if an ownership group can do it well.

Will the league have six teams in 2013?

WPS officials insist that they have plenty of expansion prospects. The problem is getting one ready in a compressed time frame for 2012.

The issue: Former magicJack owner Dan Borislow's lawsuit against the WPS

Would the league consider bringing Borislow's team back to get a sixth team?

At this point, the Borislow-WPS dispute looks like a geopolitical stalemate. WPS says other owners would likely scatter if Borislow were able to force his way back into the league in court. The league accuses Borislow of poisoning its relationships with sponsors, particularly Puma, saying his "involvement in the League has proven so controversial that it alienated existing sponsors when he was part of the League and made it difficult to find new ones willing to tolerate his unpredictable and unprofessional behavior."

What happens if the Florida circuit court where Borislow filed his lawsuit rules that it has no jurisdiction over his dispute with WPS?

WPS argues that its LLC Agreement designates the Delaware Court of Chancery as the proper venue for legal action, and that any case that court passes up should be filed in San Francisco. Borislow said in an email: "We will pursue justice wherever it takes us. The case should be heard in Florida."

Is Borislow seeking to start his own women's soccer league?

Jerry Zanelli, commissioner of the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), told Examiner.com that Borislow was considering it, but Borislow says he isn't starting his own league.

Will Borislow stay involved in top-level women's soccer if he isn't able to field his own team?

He says he's willing to offer facilities if the U.S. national team needs them for Olympic preparation. "We donated the fields, hotel, etc., for two weeks before Germany," he said. "I believe they will tell you it worked out very well for them. We got into this for the girls/kids, Country and the USWNT. We remain committed. We believe the success of soccer in the U.S. is closely tied to both our National team's success."

When will the case be heard in court?

The league filed a motion opposing an expedited hearing, but it refers to dates last week, when various officials had conflicts and courts were closed for two days for the Thanksgiving holiday. A hearing could be scheduled as early as this week.