The United Soccer Leagues’ W-League is set to kick off its 15th season on May 15th. While the league has undergone a few changes to its name and structure over the past 15 years, it continues to serve an invaluable function in women’s soccer on the North American continent.
The W-League is particularly unique due to its vision and continued commitment to player development. Countless numbers of WPS players have plied their trade in the W-League. It remains an important stepping stone for most female soccer players in this country. The league also has a unique youth structure in place that develops female players from the youth level at the Super Y and the new Super-20 Leagues and on to professional/amateur competition in the W-League. The league has developed relationships with the NCAA, National Team programs and with WPS. These partnerships can only signal a bright future for both the W-League and women’s soccer in general.
There was a bit of turmoil with the administrators of the W-League, United Soccer Leagues, at the end of 2009. American soccer fans well-versed in the goings on at the second division level likely know about the conflict between the USL and some of its team owners. (Check out Brian Quarstad’s blog http://insideminnesotasoccer.com for the details). It has since been resolved by the United States Soccer Federation. While the look of men’s second division soccer in North America may have changed in 2010, the W-League remained independent from the rift and is back in 2010 stronger than ever.
The league will feature 29 teams from 13 states this year. California’s Pali Blues looks to win its third consecutive W-League title this season but will face stiff competition from the likes of the Ottawa Fury, the Washington Freedom Futures, the Vancouver Whitecaps and perhaps another surprise team.
The W-League’s Senior Director, Melanie Fitzgerald, was gracious enough to answer some questions regarding the current state of the league, its outlook for the future and her thoughts on what’s going to transpire on the field for the 2010 season.
Our conversation will be published in three parts over the next three days. Part One features an overview of the W-League and its history, how and if the offseason turbulence in USL affected the league and why the league continues to play such an important role in youth development.
AWK: For people who may not be too familiar with the W-League, can you give a quick overview of the league and its history, and what qualities makes it unique in the landscape of women’s soccer?
MF: Absolutely. I’ll start with the overall structure of the United Soccer Leagues. The W-League isn’t a standalone women’s league, it is part of USL, which is the largest organization of elite level soccer leagues in North America. We have leagues starting with the youth level: Super Y-League, the Super-20 League, W-League, PDL (which is similar to W-League on the men’s side) and then we have our USL Pro.
We’re entering our third decade of operation and we’re continuing to be the driving force of the growth of soccer in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. For those who aren’t too familiar with the W-League, it was founded in 1995. It continues to be the longest-standing elite women’s league of its kind in the U.S. and Canada. I would have to say that the most unique quality about the league is its pure pyramid structure for women’s soccer beginning with the Super Y-League, the Super-20 League through the pro-am W-League. And I say pro-am in that the W-League offers our teams a choice when they enter the league. They can either utilize the full professional roster or they can utilize a full amateur roster. Due to NCAA guidelines we can’t have pros playing alongside amateurs so they do have to choose. This pure pyramid targets females from youth all the way up to the professional level and it provides a pathway which makes it absolutely unique in its kind. No other women’s league has that. We have the complete pathway for youth and pro-am competition and a very efficient business model for owners. Additionally, we complement the collegiate playing experience as well as National Team programs, not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well.
AWK: The season is kicking off in two weeks from now, so what’s the offseason been like for you? I’m sure it’s been kind of hectic in W-League-land.
MF: It has been. I mean, we use the word ‘offseason’ but I’m not sure you can really classify it as an offseason. It is a very, very busy time for us. Following our Annual General Meetings in November, we transition into the full time process of solidifying and announcing alignment, schedules and additional items of interest for our teams. From that we move into all the operational adjustments for the franchise of which includes orientations with the new franchises to make sure they’re properly prepared for upcoming season. From there we have a series of conference calls with the entire League to ensure everyone understands the operational aspects of the League for the season.
Not only do we spend a large amount of time on pre-season operations but the offseason is a very important time for strategic planning in the W-League. As a staff we have spent a lot of time on expansion for 2011 and beyond, partnerships, and the overall enhancement of the profile of the W-League and the services we offer to our players and franchise owners.
AWK: And can you discuss who the new expansion teams will be?
MF: For the 2010 season the expansion franchises are Santa Clarita, California, Colorado Rush, which is out of Denver, the North Jersey Valkyries which are out of Northern New Jersey, and the New Jersey Rangers out of New Jersey as well.
AWK: Anyone who is familiar with men’s North American second division soccer is probably familiar with the conflict that arose at the end of last year between USL, the TOA and the USSF. And during that whole process I kept thinking to myself ‘what’s going on with the W-League? Is this going to affect it in any way?’ So my question to you is has it affected it in any way and how have the new owners from NuRock embraced the league thus far?
MF: Obviously as we know, it attracted a lot of attention last year and you could say it was distracting on many levels for what we were trying to do from the league’s standpoint. But did it affect the W-League directly? No it did not. The conflicts that did arise between the owners didn’t affect the W-League teams that they operated and for that we are grateful. I think it’s important to note that while it has taken a lot of the new ownership’s time it was very important that this matter get resolved to ensure the continuation of men’s pro soccer at a high level. With this being said they have made an concentrated effort to ensure the W-League is a high priority as well.
Based upon my time here at USL, Nu Rock has actually given the W-League more attention than it’s ever received before. They definitely feel that it needs to have its own identity, its own profile, and they’ve been working tirelessly to ensure that happens. They have a lot of commitment to the women’s game and I think you can see that from the ground up of what they’re trying to do, and their vision for it.
AWK: So there won’t be any ramifications from the fallout?
AWK: Ok good. So the W-League has partnerships with some WPS clubs. Can you elaborate on this and do you think this is the way forward for youth development in this country and this continent?
MF: I definitely think it’s the way forward. While the W-League doesn’t have an official partnership with WPS, we do maintain a working relationship and a number of our teams have formed a formal relationship. For instance, we have the W-League Combine. We put that Combine on for WPS coaches and the W-League teams that do have formal relationships with WPS teams utilize the relationship for player development, cross-marketing, camps, clinics, etc. It is a strong relationship between the leagues. Is it the way forward for youth development? Absoutely. I think a direct pathway is very important for the female player and I think that the fact that USL has the the Super Y-League, the Super-20, the W-League of which leads into WPS that there’s a lot of opportunity for what the two leagues can do together to enhance the national profile for women’s soccer overall.
AWK: The W-League has seemed to have really excelled in that niche of being a developmental, one-tiered league for female players. Are there going to be any structural changes in the future or is this the way to go?
MF: I think it’s absolutely the way to go. We’ve had a lot of success in our noted longevity in being the longest-standing league of this kind. This model continues to work for us and I believe it will continue to work for many years. With that being said, there have been discussions regarding potential structural changes, whether that be in the next couple of years or even farther out. To date the one-tiered developmental league has made the most sense for both us as a League but for our owners as well. In years past the W-League had a two-tiered model but for various reasons went back to the one-tiered model. The USL continually prides itself on adapting to the market and adapting to the needs of our ownership groups. I mean, look at Buffalo Flash; they’re a complete professional team in the W-League competing against amateur teams. We have to continue to look at what makes sense for them and other teams that go with the professional model in the long term, whether that be extending the season , creating additional cup competition or even perhaps an creating an additional tier. In closing those discussions are taking place and it will be interesting to see what develops out of it.
In Part Two, Melanie discusses the W-League’s foreign expansion and the possibility of a Women’s U.S. Open Cup.