Women's Professional Soccer took another big step toward a fourth season Tuesday, with all five teams agreeing to U.S. Soccer's conditions for a Division 1 sanction.
U.S. Soccer's board had delayed giving WPS a Division 1 sanction at its regular meeting Nov. 20, instead giving the league time to work on getting a sixth team. WPS could not line up a sixth team in time for the 2012 season, but the league was able to convince U.S. Soccer that they have a solid expansion pipeline. U.S. Soccer's board agreed Monday evening to extend the sanction to WPS, provided the league's owners voted to accept the terms.
The conditions include expanding to at least six teams in 2013 and eight in 2014, plus unspecified financial requirements geared toward stabilizing the league.
"It became clear the league was quite confident they will have additional teams for next year," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said in a conference call Tuesday night. "At least in one case, they probably had a team that could've played this year, but it would've been better for the development of the game, for that team and the league for them to wait."
WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan wouldn't name the expansion prospects, but said she saw at least one in each of three different regions -- the East coast, West coast and Midwest.
"We don't feel like we have to add three [for 2013]," O'Sullivan said. "If we can add three, that would be great."
The sanctioning agreement becoming final is likely to start a flurry of free-agent signings. U.S. women's national team stars such as Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are available, though some players may choose to rest and heal nagging injuries ahead of the 2012 Olympics.
Gulati envisions most national team players participating in the league in 2012.
"Those are individual decisions the players will make, given their own schedules," Gulati said. "Some of them are close to signing or have signed. Some of them were clearly waiting for this process to take place. Dan Flynn [U.S. Soccer CEO] and I talked with Pia [Sundhage, the U.S. women's coach] last week, and certainly I think her expectation is that, with the league going forward now, there will be a number of players playing in the league."
The Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash have announced the most offseason moves so far. Boston returns English star Kelly Smith, along with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and co-captains Leslie Osborne and Alex Scott. The Flash, which won the league in its debut season this summer, will bring back U.S. super sub Alex Morgan, Canadian star Christine Sinclair, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defender Ali Riley.
With the sanctioning issue resolved, the next hurdle for WPS is ongoing litigation with Dan Borislow, who has sued the league in an attempt to get his magicJack team reinstated after the league terminated it in October.
O'Sullivan said U.S. Soccer wasn't specifically concerned about Borislow.
"The only discussions we had were to the reasons why the league is currently at five teams instead of six," O'Sullivan said. "There were no concerns raised as to the lawsuit or the termination."
And O'Sullvan has plenty of other issues on her plate: bringing in new sponsors, continuing work on 2013 expansion and working with the players union on a collective bargaining agreement.
"Everything is really a priority for us," O'Sullivan said.
Another offseason issue has been resolved -- O'Sullivan said the Boston Breakers, who were looking for new investors after the 2011 season, have solidified their investor group.
And while the league's schedule is not completely nailed down, it's likely to resemble last year's schedule, with a break for international play during the Olympics, O'Sullivan said.
Though speculation and brainstorming on new league models were rampant during the sanctioning delay, Gulati said U.S. Soccer and WPS were focused on continuing business as usual.
"That wasn't something we seriously discussed, in terms of taking a hiatus or anything else," Gulati said.
In addition to the Division 1 sanction, Gulati says U.S. Soccer is likely to be an active WPS supporter.
"Last year, we were involved in a marketing relationship with the league, where we supported the league through a sponsorship agreement, and I'd anticipate we would do the same this year," Gulati said.
Gulati said leagues shouldn't rely too heavily on big bumps from major events. His expectations for 2013 are modest.
"I'm not going to predict what we might do a year from now or two years from now, but going from five to six with the same owners returning -- stability and growth -- would go a long way to showing us that the model is going to work and that they're developing in the right way," Gulati said.