WPS facing pressure over its future

Women's Professional Soccer is fighting for its future.

The league is working to keep its status as a U.S. Soccer–sanctioned Division I league, and fighting against a lawsuit from former team owner Dan Borislow seeking reinstatement of his magicJack franchise, which the league terminated last month.

A tough series of outcomes could be facing the league:

• If WPS can't convince U.S. Soccer to sanction it as a Division I league, top players might not sign to play. And if the league continues without a U.S. Soccer's sanction, WPS players could risk bans from international competition -- depending on how FIFA decides to impose its rules.

U.S. Soccer has granted WPS waivers in the past to play with fewer than the eight teams it normally requires. But at its Nov. 20 meeting, U.S. Soccer's board delayed sanctioning the league with five teams. Instead, U.S. Soccer gave WPS 15 days to expand to six teams.

If WPS can't get a sixth team ready in 15 days or U.S. Soccer declines to give a waiver for a five-team league, it's unclear what the league's options might be.

"The only thing I can say is that we really are exploring all possible options to see what might be feasible," WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan said. "Our primary goal is to maintain our Division I status, which we take very seriously."

U.S. Soccer is not revealing much about what is going on with the WPS.

"I think it's best for us to refrain from commenting while we're currently in discussions with WPS," said Neil Buethe, U.S. Soccer's senior manager of communications, to espnW.

WPS officials say the league is still looking toward future expansion and has several good prospects for 2013. But getting a sixth team ready in a compressed time frame mandated by U.S. Soccer will be a challenge. O'Sullivan says the league is still working on a possible sixth team, but doesn't view the sanctioning delay as an ultimatum.

"Retaining our Division I standing is our primary goal," O'Sullivan said. "If we can do that by adding a sixth team, that's certainly what we'll do."

And she says U.S. Soccer has not told them to mend the rift with Borislow.

"U.S. Soccer has never mandated to us who the sixth team should be," O'Sullivan said.

Western New York president/player Alex Sahlen has launched an online petition asking U.S. Soccer to let the league proceed with five teams for just one year. More than 4,000 signatures are on her petition.

"…WUSA has folded and we have recovered," Sahlen wrote on her petition. "But to see Women's Professional Soccer fail twice would surely mean the end. The opportunity for the millions of young girls that dream of being the next Hope Solo or Alex Morgan will never get the chance. All because US Soccer did not back the league that is playing in their back yard. That is producing and bettering their players for not just today, but for the future. … The players have sacrificed their whole lives to become a professional athlete and live out their dream -- the dream that could be crushed in just a matter of days. Growing a new league takes time and patience, especially a women's professional league…

"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," Sahlen's petition says.

"I know that a petition may or may not have an impact, but I think it is so important for people to know about what is happening right now and feel that they have a voice," Sahlen said. "If we get thousands and even millions of people to sign this, our hope is obviously for it to put some pressure on U.S. Soccer to sanction this league as is. Of course we would love for a millionaire who has the desire to run a franchise properly and has a vested interest in women's sports [to] step up, but there is so much more that goes into running a team and there is so little time before the season begins. It's a lot of responsibility and commitment. Rather than wait and hope for someone to turn up, we can at least get fans and the media behind us to hopefully make WPS in 2012 happen."

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who played for magicJack last season and was part of the 2011 American World Cup team, signed Sahlen's petition and added a comment of her own.

"For many of us, the WPS league is a stage to further what we've been working on for most of our lives," Sauerbrunn said. "WPS represents an opportunity to fulfill a dream that would otherwise go unrealized."

Most U.S. women's national teamers have not yet signed with WPS teams for 2012. Regardless of the league's other issues, the 2012 season poses a scheduling complication with the Olympics in late July and early August.

Borislow has accused WPS coaches and owners of not caring about the national team players or even rooting against them.

O'Sullivan, an attorney who is usually reserved in picking her words, vehemently disagrees.

"For anybody to suggest that the league or its owners or governors would be against the national team is outrageous," O'Sullivan said. "The national team players have been extremely supportive of the league and they're important to us. Going into this Olympic year, we would hope that WPS is a place that they hold dear and want to continue supporting."

Emma Hayes, who served as technical director for WPS champion Western New York last year and has moved to Sky Blue's coaching staff, said Sunday on Twitter that the league would continue no matter what U.S. Soccer decides.

"The league is gonna happen with or w/out USSF support," Hayes tweeted. "But you know what it's about time they invest."

•  The Borislow suit could have ripples if he wins, as if his franchise is reinstated, the league warns in its court papers, a majority of the remaining five owners would rather walk away and disband the league.

WPS now needs to figure out how to live without Borislow, having determined that the league can't live with him.

WPS has said little in the media about its decision to terminate Borislow's team. In its response to Borislow's lawsuit, however, the league opens up in strong terms. The WPS' response to Borislow's motion calls his suit a "continuation of his campaign to bury the League with legal costs and tarnish the League with sensational and self-serving public statements designed solely to bring down the League for his own personal gain."

The league, which is seeking dismissal of Borislow's suit and payment of its legal fees, also claims sponsors were wary of getting involved with it while Borislow was still involved.

And the WPS takes pains to depict Borislow as unprofessional, including among its exhibits several email exchanges in which Borislow insults league officials and other owners with profanity and questions of competence.

One such email from Borislow to former league CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas: "I expected nothing less from a bunch of blithering idiots This will be judged by a higher authority one day. Your boss, Dan."

The key point of the league's response counters Borislow's contention that his team was terminated without due process. The league, through 90 exhibits and two lengthy court papers, says otherwise.

"That's what the league is saying in the papers," O'Sullivan said Friday. "We did give him due process."

Borislow first sued the league in August, claiming WPS was threatening immediate termination of his ownership rights. In his current lawsuit, he claims the August lawsuit was dropped with the belief that "disputes with the league were behind it." WPS paints a different picture in its response, saying the parties had agreed to delay termination and the August lawsuit until after the season. One day before the WPS reply brief was due, the league's motion says, Borislow dropped the August lawsuit.

Still, WPS held open the door for magicJack's return. The league's exhibits include a couple of emails from Western New York owner Joe Sahlen attempting to set up meetings after the season. Finally, Borislow is included on an invitation to the Oct. 25 Board of Governors meeting at which the other owners agreed to terminate his interest in the league.

The league replays a laundry list of transgressions it says Borislow's team committed in its only season in the league: failure to market the team, a home field that wasn't regulation size, refusal to provide basic medical care (such as a staff trainer or, for at least one home game, an ambulance and emergency crew at the field), refusal to abide by league sanctions such as suspensions and fines, nasty attacks in public and private on league officials, failure to participate in league meetings and hostility that caused his own players to file a union grievance that got him removed from coaching duty.

Also included: unpaid bills that piled up over the course of the season, from sponsor signage to U.S. Soccer fees, though the league denies in court papers that it demanded $2.5 million from Borislow.

"Most of the response is just personal attacks on me," Borislow said Friday. "They will lose, like they lose everything else. You have to be in the right to win."

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