Uncategorized - December 22, 2011

Lauletta’s League Lowdown: Moving Forward

WPS will indeed live to see a fourth season and likely many more than that, but the road to 2012 has been paved with bumps.
— Dan Lauletta

When Women’s Professional Soccer launched in 2009 one of the main watermarks was whether the league could thrive beyond the three seasons afforded WUSA, which closed its doors after playing between 2001 and 2003. WPS will indeed live to see a fourth season and likely many more than that, but the road to 2012 has been paved with bumps. Last week though, the league and US Soccer signed off on an agreement that will see the league sanctioned with five teams for next season with promises for more in the years to come.

“Every year each of the pro leagues are required to submit a formal annual report that essentially outlines how we meet the standards of US Soccer,” Melanie Fitzgerald, WPS Manager of League Operations, explained. “So we were re-applying for Division I sanctioning.”

This time around, after WPS terminated magicJack and left itself with five teams, US Soccer balked at sanctioning, and laid down some demands for the league to meet. In the end the 2012 season was allowed to proceed with five teams. Fitzgerald did not speak on any specifics of the arrangement, but WPS will be required to add a sixth team for 2013 and at least eight by 2014.

“We didn’t feel it was appropriate to rush the process,” Fitzgerald said of adding a sixth team for 2013. The Western New York Flash were an active soccer club when they joined up late in the game ahead of 2011. The league is hoping to be able to make an expansion announcement during the first half of 2012, although Fitzgerald stopped short of making that a firm goal.

“We’re looking forward to moving forward and adding and announcing new markets,” she said. “That’s exciting for fans.”

The league is not divulging information on specific expansion candidates, but cities everywhere from Long Island to Vancouver have been mentioned as potential homes for WPS franchises. Even Detroit was mentioned a few years ago when the new owners of the Silverdome vowed to transform the building and host men’s and women’s soccer teams.

On expansion back to the west Fitzgerald repeated what the league has said since losing both California teams: “It’s important for us to reclaim a West Coast presence so West Coast will be a priority for us in terms of expansion.”

For now the focus will turn towards 2012 and what is sure to be a highly competitive season as the reduction to five teams will make jobs that much more difficult to come by. Home openers are expected to be announced close to the draft next month and the full schedule will be ready for February.

As for player signings, Fitzgerald expects the news will start rolling in rapidly.

“At this point the players are prepared to make decisions and to start signing contracts,” she said. “I know a lot of players have already made verbal decisions with teams so we’re waiting paperwork to get submitted and finalized. Teams are definitely moving forward.”

US National Team players—many of whom are free agents—are expected to sign and play more than half of the 2012 season. The rest will be spent preparing for and playing in the Olympic Games. A year ago the World Cup robbed WPS teams of key players, but the epic tournament created unprecedented buzz for professional women’s soccer in the US and the league finished the season with a flourish.

Fitzgerald acknowledges the Olympics are different, but still holds high hopes for a similar impact next summer.

“It is a different event than the World Cup,” she said. “But I think when you look at the Olympics four years ago and the Olympics today, the awareness of women’s soccer has definitely risen. I would anticipate that more people will be paying attention. I trust that we’ll have a successful Olympics and we’ll be able to celebrate that.”

The schedule is far from final, but a break during all or part of the Olympics is anticipated.

“The exciting thing is we’re moving into year four,” Fitzgerald said. “I think there was a big cloud over women’s soccer that, would we make it into year four or be similar to WUSA? We are making it to year four. This is just another hurdle that we’ve crossed.”

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