The plight of the Women’s Professional Soccer League

Last summer the world was treated to a month-long display of sports at their best. The Women’s World Cup in Germany showed us great soccer, tenacious play, superb athletic skill, wonderful sportsmanship, and some of the most heart-stopping moments I have ever seen. The United States versus Brazil match was one I won’t soon forget. The moment when Megan Rapinoe’s long, arcing, perfectly placed, ball connected with Abby Wambach’s head and tied the game in the 122nd minute is one that will live on in the pantheon of incredible sports moments.

Indeed, it was voted “Best Play” at the 2011 ESPY awards. After the final in which the United States lost to Japan on penalty kicks we saw a display of sportsmanship worthy of the match itself, as the distraught players on the losing team continually praised Japan’s team and showed as much grace and poise in defeat as they had shown exuberance in victory days earlier. With the World Cup last year and the Olympics in London later this summer as showcases for the sport, women’s soccer was poised to have a break out year in the United States.

Instead, last month the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league decided to suspend operations for the 2012 season while it sorts out some legal issues with one of its team owners. In October 2011, the league terminated its South Florida franchise, magicJack, over disputes with team owner Dan Borislow. The league and Borislow clashed all of last season over his team’s failure to meet the league standards. Some of the allegations against Borislow included unprofessional and disparaging treatment of his players and failure to pay his bills. This prompted a bizarre moment toward the end of the season in which the league barred Borislow, who sometimes acted as the team’s coach, from the sidelines. Abby Wambach had the awkward job of being a player-coach for the remainder of the season.

The league and Borislow continue to sort out their disagreements in court, which has already ruled that the league failed to follow its own internal dispute procedures when it terminated the franchise. Because of the resources the league has to devote to the legal case it has decided to suspend the league for this season but hopes to reopen in 2013.

What is particularly sad about this news for fans of soccer and of women’s sports in general is that it comes at a time when the league was poised to make gains and hopefully to cement its place in the crowded sports world. Women’s leagues have a difficult enough time gaining traction with enough fans to remain viable financially without this sort of major disruption. The WUSA, the league started on the back of the United States’ iconic win at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, was unable to sustain itself and folded after just three years. The WPS has already lost teams and has realigned itself at least once during its short tenure in order to stay financially viable. It appears to be trying to avoid some of the problems that plagued the WUSA but it is hard to know if this suspension of play will be the end of the league or not.

Now that you are totally bummed out and furiously trying to buy tickets to the WNBA, lest it go under, too, there is a silver lining of sorts. While the WPS is out of commission for 2012, some of its teams have decided to slide over and play in the Elite Division of the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) for the season. The WPSL has been around since 1998 and is a semi-pro and amateur league with over 50 teams. It has an elite division with several teams that used to be part of the WPS and now will add Western New York Flash, Philadelphia Fever and the Boston Breakers to its Elite division for this season. This is good news for people who want to be able to see soccer and live near one of these teams.

We can also hope that the United States National team will do a some kind of tour as well as it prepares for the Olympics. For now their schedule indicates that they will be playing two exhibition matches in Japan against Japan and Brazil in April. For everyone else, we can still look forward to these gorgeous ladies lacing them up in London this summer and keep our fingers crossed that the league makes a comeback next year.

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