Where would we be without the W-League? Morgan Brian, Lori Chalupny, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Amy Rodriguez. Those are the only players on the world champion US National Team who never played in the W-League. Everyone else – from Carli Lloyd to Becky Sauerbrunn to Abby Wambach – honed their craft at that level before moving on up. (26 additional players for Canada and Mexico’s WWC teams also had W-League experience.)
The W-League was founded in 1995 with 19 teams from the Boston Tornado to the San Diego Lady Top Guns, with two teams folding during the course of the season. Despite several west coast teams leaving after the 1997 season to form the WPSL, the league grew to the point where by 1998 it had 34 teams in two levels. The two-table setup continued through 2001, when the league had 38 teams.
The league took a hit in 2001, when the WUSA formed and gave the best women players the opportunity to play professionally. Of the 120 players in the initial draft, at least 37 had played previously in the W-League. As for the Founders – the 24 players who formed the core of the league, based on the team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup – at least a third had played in the W-League, including Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow, Tracy Ducar, Sara Whalen, Christie Rampone, Danielle Fotopoulos, Tisha Venturini, and Siri Mullinix.
The league returned to one table in 2002 but still had 35 teams, including the Maryland “Pepsi” Pride. This was when it appeared on my radar. One of my favorite players on the WUSA Washington Freedom – fellow computer programmer Keri Sarver – was cut and ended up playing for the Pride, so I made my first trips to the Soccerplex to see that team play.
In 2003, the league lost three teams to the WPSL – including the Pride – while seven more folded, dropping the total to 26. Keri transitioned from the Pride to the Northern Virginia Majestics, giving me a longer commute to see her.
When the WUSA folded in 2003, the Washington Freedom retained an existence as a barnstorming team and played several W-League and WPSL teams, including the Majestics, though by that time Keri had returned home to Ohio where she still coaches soccer. Meanwhile, bad news for the WUSA was good news for the W-League, which added a net 12 teams to return to 38.
2005 was when I really got into the W-League, and it was a good time to do so. The Freedom had bolstered their roster and despite being an independent team was as good as any but the best W-League teams, proving it by going up to New Jersey and tying the eventual W-League champion Wildcats, 1-1, with Joanna Lohman beating goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc to put the ball in the net.
They didn’t do so well in the rematch at the Soccerplex, losing 1-0, but that time the Wildcats had their national teamers available, including Cat Reddick (now Whitehill), Christie Welsh, and Heather O’Reilly.
After that, I made a point of going up for the W-League Final Four, hosted by New Jersey. The other teams were the Central Florida Krush featuring Heather Mitts, the Vancouver Whitecaps Women, and the Ottawa Fury. In the semis, the Wildcats gave up a goal just forty seconds in to the Whitecaps, but then came back with two goals to win it. In the final, they crushed the regular season champion Ottawa Fury, 3-0, with O’Reilly scoring a goal and earning a PK that tallied another.
2006 was much like 2005, with the Freedom an associate member of the W-League, again playing teams in games that really didn’t count.
As I’ve recounted elsewhere, in 2007 the Freedom brought home a second championship trophy, led by captain Lori Lindsey and aided by players including Ali Krieger, Sarah Huffman, Rebecca Moros, and Christie Welsh. One of the high spots in Washington women’s soccer history for me was the team’s opening goal in the championship, scored about 45 seconds in off a Krieger interception, a Lindsey assist, and a Moros putaway.
2008 was less successful for the Freedom but the best year ever for the W-League with 41 teams. A new team, the Pali Blues, took the championship under head coach Charlie Naimo, who was also the coach for the 2005 champion Wildcats. It would be the harbinger of things to come as they’d go on to take three more in the next six years.
The WPS brought women’s professional soccer back in 2009, and the W-League took a slight hit, dropping to 37 teams. The Blues would win their second championship, downing the Freedom 2-1 at the Soccerplex in the final. It was a match somewhat marred by an NCAA rule change that started college soccer camp before the W-League playoffs were over. Announced after the W-League season had already been set, it meant that neither team had their best college players available. (For the Blues this included the top five players taken in the 2010 WPS draft: Tobin Heath, Lauren Cheney, Kelley O’Hara, Whitney Engen, and Nikki Washington.)
2010 was the beginning of a slow decline, with the league losing 10 teams and dropping to 29 total. The Buffalo Flash – progenitors of the NWSL’s Western New York Flash – would win the championship.
There were 27 teams in 2011. Five teams joined, masking numerically the loss of all the US midwestern teams. The Atlanta Silverbacks took the championship, demolishing the Ottawa Fury in the final, 6-1.
The league rebounded slightly in 2012 with 30 teams. The Ottawa Fury downed the Blues in the final on PKs to take the championship.
The league dropped to 25 teams in 2013 and 2014, losing the storied Vancouver Whitecaps Women in 2013 and the last founding team, the Virginia Beach Piranhas, in 2014. And the Majestics folded to let its staff support the newly-formed Washington Spirit. The Blues won the championship both years. On the plus side, the Braddock Road Stars Elite joined the league in 2014, bringing back a team to Northern Virginia.
The writing was on the wall in 2015. The league dropped to a mere 18 teams, fewer teams than the league started out with back in 1995. Too, it lost the two most recent championship teams, the Blues and the Fury, along with two other Canadian teams that left to form their own, Canadian league.
That made the travel requirements for the teams onerous. Competing in the Southeastern Conference, the Spirit Reserves had to travel to destinations as far away as Atlanta and Dayton to play, while the Western Conference ranged from California to Seattle to Arizona to Colorado. It’s not clear what straw broke the camel’s back – whether there looked to be even fewer teams competing in 2016 (I heard a rumor that the Spirit Reserves didn’t plan on returning to the W-League, but I have not been able to confirm it), or if teams just said no mas to a repeat of 2015. Either way, the longest-lasting nationwide (and more) women’s league in the US is no more.
So what happens next?
The obvious outcome is that any teams wishing to continue to compete join the WPSL, which is burgeoning with 82 teams. However, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the WPSL, even among those currently associated with it. Unlike the incorporated W-League, the WPSL is wholly owned by founder Jerry Zanelli. His decisions are the final ones, not whatever gets decided at the Annual General Meetings. Standards are not nearly at the W-League level. Players who have participated in both leagues have expressed disgust for the quality of the fields and locker rooms allowed in WPSL. Roster rules are lax: For example, in 2013 the New England Mutiny were allowed to sign Morgan Andrews the day before their first playoff match, even though she’d started the season with another team and not played one minute for the Mutiny during the regular season. (Ironically, the Mutiny indicated after their 2015 season that they are fed up with the WPSL and will not be returning.)
Teams that have earned playoff spots are allowed to decline to participate without any consequences, something that’s become rampant in the league over the past few years.
On the other hand, it’s hard to blame teams when playoff arrangements are only announced at the last minute. This past season the Chesapeake Charge thought winning their division would put them in a regional final four against winners of divisions in the northeast because that’s what had happened every other year. Instead, they were told – only about a week ahead of time – that they were now part of the Southeast and were expected to go to Knoxville to play a team from Utah (!). It is perhaps no surprise that they decided to participate in a USASA tournament held in nearby Virginia Beach instead.
That being said, my feeling is that there are two categories of high-level amateur teams. Some just want to give college kids a team to play on over the summer. Others, meanwhile, are out to excel and win a championship. It would make sense to have – as suggested by David Kemp here – a two-tier approach, with a lower tier with less strict standards and optional playoff participation, and a higher tier that demands quality infrastructure and playoff participation.
Is the WPSL up for that? My sources are skeptical, but there are some signs of hope. After all, the WPSL was behind the 2012 WPSL-Elite, which, though geographically limited, was effectively an attempt at a higher tier even if a few teams weren’t up to the challenge. This past season the WPSL also established a “Power 5” Division, which by all accounts was initially an attempted revival of something similar to the WPSL-Elite, though in the end it turned into just another regional division (won by the Mutiny, incidentally).
Whether the WPSL provides it or not, there is a clear need for an elite amateur league to give seasoning to top college players preparing to play professionally. And where there is a need, fulfillment will come. But, as with the professional leagues, it’s just a question of how long it will take.