February 22, 2012

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Women's Pro Soccer tries to tackle troubles ahead of fourth season

17 Jan, 2012

By Jimmy LaRoue

KANSAS CITY, MO. – Alluding to the league’s financial and legal woes, Women’s Professional Soccer commissioner Jennifer O’Sullivan sounded almost apologetic when she addressed women’s soccer supporters at the 2012 WPS Draft, held here on Friday during the NSCAA Convention.

The league is still stuck in a legal battle with Dan Borislow, owner of the terminated magicJack franchise once based in Germantown, Md. and is trying to press forward after barely earning provisional sanctioning from U.S. Soccer with just five member teams heading into its fourth season.

The league and Borislow will be back in court Thursday, where the judge is expected to decide on the issues on the request for the injunction.

“It’s certainly been an unfortunate situation for us,” O’Sullivan said Friday following the draft. “It’s been a distraction from what we’re trying to do in building the league. I can just say that we believe firmly in our decision process, and it was a decision that was made with great thought and consideration. So we’ll see what happens next week."

Two of the league’s U.S. Women's National Team stars, Abby Wambach, who was magicJack’s player-coach for much of 2011, and Hope Solo, haven’t committed to the league this season due in large part due to the scheduling demands posed by the Summer Olympics in London. But O’Sullivan said she expects them to give their full backing to WPS.

“I think Abby and Hope have been tremendous contributors to the league,” O’Sullivan said. “And I think they’ll continue to be supportive of the league. Whether they play or not, that’s a personal decision for them.”

However, WPS is still having trouble attracting sponsors and an audience, both in person and on television, while it works its way toward stability. The league has seen five teams fold and is on its third CEO.

Sponsors have told O’Sullivan they want players more involved, though she said players have always come through for the league.

Philadelphia Independence coach Paul Riley offered the league’s most compelling reason for viability: its players. Even without Wambach, Solo and perhaps Brazilian star Marta as well, WPS still features most of the world’s best female soccer players due to the quality which continues to rise to the top of the U.S. women's soccer landscape.

“They will never see the quality of players anywhere that they have in this league anywhere in the world,” Riley said, addressing fans. “If you go to Sweden and you watch the two best teams play in Sweden, you’re looking at five players on one team, and five players on another team. [If] you come to our game, you’ll get 19. If you watch the warmups, you might get a better game than some of these other countries.”

He believes that an extension of the season will attract the strongest of the foreign players that would enhance the league even more. This season, the league is expected to have a 16-game schedule, with perhaps a two-week break for the Olympics.

WPS will still need to add more teams, not just from a scheduling standpoint, but also from a more practical one -- it’s required of them.

As part of the conditions to receive provisional sanctioning from U.S. Soccer for this season, WPS and its owners have had to agree to add another team in 2013, and two more the following year. Riley said adding teams in Connecticut and Detroit are “virtually assured.”

“Discussions have been ongoing for the last several months,” O’Sullivan said. “They continue, and they’re incredibly positive. We definitely are positive in terms of being able to bring the sixth team that we need for next year, and we’re hopeful that in the next couple of months, we’ll be able to make an announcement with regard to that.”

Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra, formerly the longtime coach of the then-Washington Freedom, said he was unsure of the specific legal issues, but said he didn’t believe it would be an issue.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ve bottomed out,” Gabarra said. “I mean, we didn’t [unwillingly] lose a team this year, and the horizons and the prospects for expansion are pretty good. We’re coming off some World Cup exposure and really gave us some tangible exposure and increased our awareness. And that’s not going to slip away.”

Riley said he has confidence in the league’s viability going forward. He recalled similar issues during bedeviling the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the early years of Major League Soccer.

“I’m very confident,” Riley said. “I think this was the year to get through. Year three is always the sticky year.”

He added: “This year, it will be, whoever is at the bottom, people are probably going say that they’re going to fold at the end of the season. I think we’ve got five unbelievably committed owners. Otherwise, this wouldn’t work. If they’ve stood by it so far, I can’t imagine them pulling out at this point. The economic model is correct. Now the business model is correct. They’ve sorted out their backroom staff, and I think it’s just going to get better.”

Riley is nothing if not ambitious. He expects a 14-team league by 2014.

“I think we will, because I think the West Coast will come in all together,” Riley said. “We’re not going to bring them in until there are six or seven of them, and when they come in, they’ll jump the numbers up pretty quickly. And if we can get five or six out there, that’ll be great too. We don’t need seven. But I think right now, they’re probably at three over there, and they need to get to five or six before we do it, because that’s important.”

In the next two years, he said that should sort itself out, and that will give more players opportunities to play professional soccer. He thinks teams could return to the Chicago and Washington, D.C. markets in the next two years.

“Let’s be fair,” Riley said. “If there was 14 teams here, the draft was pretty deep this year. And I know these kids would have had a great chance to make the starting lineup and squads to travel and stuff like that. Now, they’ve got their work cut out to make the rosters, never mind making the travel squads and game day rosters as good as they are.

“That’s the part that I don’t like. And there’ll be kids that would have made the draft today that are disappointed and probably going to give up soccer today. This is probably the end for them. You know what I’m saying? I hope they play in the WPSL. I hope they play in the W-League, and then maybe when we get more expansion, they can get back into the league.”

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