Some Thoughts, More Questions As Judgment Day Looms Large

On Monday’s episode of Slate’s sports-themed Hang Up and Listen podcast, the contributors predicted who would be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (the joint honor eventually went to Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzweski). Josh Levin tipped both the USWNT and the Japanese Women’s National Team for their dazzling displays in the World Cup this summer. He then mentioned the magazine’s annual banquet and its need for attendees before deadpanning, “The U.S. women’s soccer team is [also] extremely available.”

Obviously, that’s not technically the case as the team arrived to camp at the Home Depot Center this past weekend. People directly affiliated with the USWNT are also rather occupied at the moment, as WPS and U.S. Soccer continue to work on ironing out the sanctioning issue.  

To recap, on November 20 U.S. Soccer chose to withhold sanctioning WPS for the 2012 season for the time being. The league fell short of the eight team minimum stipulated in U.S. Soccer’s bylaws for pro leagues. The league was given 15 days to find a sixth team, although the firmness of that deadline has since been debated. As you’ve noticed, WPS hasn’t secured a sixth new franchise and magicJack hasn’t been welcomed back to the Board of Governors table.

Neither will happen by Tuesday. As of Monday night, the league is set to make a presentation to the U.S. Soccer Professional League Standards Task Force in Chicago sometime Tuesday. WPS will try to convince U.S. Soccer suits to grant a waiver that will preserve the league’s division one status. The Players Union reportedly pushed to have players present at the meeting, but the league has rebuffed the suggestion.   

There’s no telling how the meeting will go, or when the final decision will be made public.

Over the past two weeks, players have expressed their thoughts on the recent flap. Yael Averbuch expressed her predictably sensible outlook on the matter. Hope Solo tweeted her predictably ambiguous Hope Solo-esque perspective. (And not to defend Solo, but let’s remember the owners whom she’s played under throughout her time in WPS: Jeff Cooper, Fitz Johnson, and Dan Borislow.)

People have also pitched ideas on how to fix WPS. Peter Wilt suggested the league just calls the whole thing off for the sake of a re-launch paired with a more pragmatic business model. In an article on SI.com, Ann Killion wrote that the USWNT could join WPS as a possible sixth franchise. Beau Dure put forth an idea that would see USWNT stars sign contracts with WPS clubs that would require them to make limited appearances before and after the Olympics (should the USWNT qualify next month).

A source confirms the latter two proposals have been the subject of serious rumination – in some corners, at least. However, as Kassouf’s piece last Friday suggests, it’s unclear whether the owners have any time for either suggestion.

Meanwhile, domestic WoSo continues business as usual. Last Friday 2011 Rookie of the Year candidate Christen Press agreed to terms with the Atlanta Beat. On Sunday the 2011 NCAA season had its most thrilling climax in recent memory as Stanford claimed its first national title with a 1-0 win over Duke.

As Chris Henderson will attest to, the 2012 WPS Draft class should be flush with talent. Names like Henninger, Henderson, Leroux, Hagen, Wells, Pressley, Noyola, Schuveiller, Mastroianni, and Frierson head the list of players who might turn pro, and a what a roll call that is. WPS has customarily held its college draft at the NSCAA Convention. This year’s Convention is set to take place in Kansas City in just six weeks.

I was in Kansas City roughly two months ago for an NSCAA event. Someone asked whether the WPS draft would be held there this year given all the uncertainty (and keep in mind, this was well before magicJack’s termination and the sanctioning issue came to the fore). The essential answer back then? “We’ll have a room set aside for WPS. We’ll see if they use it.”

That, among many other fundamental matters, will likely be determined by the USSF’s decision. So what’s going to happen? That’s the $64,000 question which, for the time being, only produces more questions.

On to the purely hypothetical scenarios: Will U.S. Soccer relent and grant the league a waiver for D1 sanctioning despite having such a diminutive league? And will it come with a heavy price; that is, limiting the availability of USWNT players even moreso than last season? Or will U.S. Soccer relegate the league to division two status? If that’s the case, there’s talk that WPS will be required to apply for a D2 waiver as the eight-team minimum also exists for division two professional teams.

If the operational rules between the two divisions remain the same, it might not be fatal. But on the other hand, if WPS is currently having trouble luring in new sponsors and investors, a league that’s been demoted a division by its own national federation in the wake of a momentous World Cup year will make for a much tougher sell. 

It also depends on how WPS frames its argument to U.S. Soccer. Hopefully they will make mention of the petition led by Alex Sahlen. The number of signings has swelled to more than 44,000 signatures since it first appeared online just over a week ago - not far from its goal of 50,000. Clearly, people are interested in the league and are very concerned about its future. The chorus of support that has been exalted on Twitter and other social media sites adds a human element to this increasingly hardhearted rift.

That last phrase also applies to the ongoing feud between the league and the recently terminated magicJack franchise. To some, magicJack represented a necessary evil that would ensure the league’s survival for at least one more season. To others, WPS had every right to terminate a franchise that has done such devastating harm to the league and its public image. And has been made clear in the court papers (court papers, sigh) Dure helped make public last week, the relationship between the two parties had simply become untenable.

Exactly a year and two days ago, Borislow gave this now infamous interview to The Equalizer. If you find the actual content too distressing, just read the comments. There’s plenty of accurate foreshadowing. Some might argue that just like in 2010, WPS stands on the brink of oblivion without him. And probably because of him, too.

Still, I’d say it’s a little premature to begin drafting eulogies for WPS. As many people have said before, if this thing fails, there won’t be a third bite of the apple for a long, long time. There’s a lot at stake here, to put it mildly.

It might be a naïve personal view, but I just can’t see how the USSF could flatly refuse to sanction the league next year.

For one, the rewards of having a sanctioned pro league should outweigh the costs – quite literally in this case, as residency certainly isn’t free. And as Kate Markgraf has pointed out via Twitter, a closed residency system has plenty of flaws as the international game (read: the USWNT’s competition) continues to progress at such an accelerated rate.

But there’s a potential public perception problem, too (which also comes with accidental alliteration). Should U.S. Soccer opt to deny sanctioning, people who have mobilized on Twitter might be inclined to portray the USSF as heartless villains. To put it in plainer terms, they’ll blame U.S. Soccer for being the jerks that unilaterally killed off women’s pro soccer in this country. It would give more ammunition to the people who think U.S. Soccer could simply not care less about the women’s game.

The capacity crowds at the three most recent USWNT friendlies coupled with the explosion of USWNT-devoted Twitter handles and Tumblrs underscore the team’s recent uptick in popularity. If some of that national team fervor has indeed translated to WPS fanhood, that will make for a much larger demographic of pissed off fans than there would be say, at this time last year. Will the USSF truly care about that? Maybe not, but the USWNT (and by extension, women’s soccer) has a vibrant, dedicated, specific, and growing fanbase whose continued enfranchisement is of undeniable importance to the USSF.

Others will be apprehensive to cast the USSF in such a negative light, though. A pro women’s soccer league that provides a venue for the hopes and dreams of little girls has undeniable value – some of it legitimate, some of it sentimental. Still though, this stuff is business. And the bottom line is that WPS has failed to keep its financial house in order and U.S. Soccer owns the property it’s situated on. That the league failed to secure a single expansion team after a euphoric three weeks in Germany and the short-term residual benefits that rounded out the 2011 WPS season says something. It’s also hard to put a positive spin on the fact that the league has lost as many franchises as it currently has over the course of its three-year existence.

This is highly simplistic and highly unoriginal, but there should be a symbiotic relationship in which WPS benefits from support offered by U.S. Soccer while the USWNT benefits from players reared in WPS. As Stringer Bell would say, there needs to be flex, some give and take on both sides.

Perhaps this messy ordeal will pave the way for some more flexing on both ends, should both ends be willing to soften their stances just a little bit. It could lead to a fresher, more thorough (and empathetic?) understanding of the people seated across the bargaining table. Maybe the latest face-off between U.S. Soccer and WPS will take a Wilt-onian turn after all. When things go astray, sometimes it’s best to just return to square one.    

But honestly, who knows.

8 thoughts on “Some Thoughts, More Questions As Judgment Day Looms Large

  1. Philip

    “To put it in plainer terms, they’ll blame U.S. Soccer for being the jerks that unilaterally killed off women’s pro soccer in this country. It would give more ammunition to the people who think U.S. Soccer could simply not care less about the women’s game.”

    And rightly so I think. I know I will be mad. It’s the Federation’s rule, they can break it. It’s not like the other federations are going to come around and yell at them and call them names.

    On a personal note, quoting Stringer Bell, marry me please Jenna.

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  2. Eight

    “That the league failed to secure a single expansion team after a euphoric three weeks in Germany and the short-term residual benefits that rounded out the 2011 WPS season says something.”

    I’m sure the USWNT players mentioning their WPS clubs and how awesome WPS is exactly ZERO times during post-WWC interviews when they had the US press at their feet didn’t help. As the highest salaried players I expected them to take on that responsibility. Gulati’s “meh” response re: WPS didn’t help either. In some ways, US Soccer is both the prosecutor and the judge.

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  3. John

    As always an interesting and informative piece. Checking out the links reminded me of how sometimes women’s soccer gets melded into a singular unit w/ perhaps troubling results. Yael writes of feeling the enthusiasum of the fans at various women’s soccer venues, but fails to distinguish between USWNT and WPS events. One issue has always been transferring USWNT love to WPS followers. How many of the 44,000 petition signers have ever been at a WPS game, bought WPS gear, or watched a Fox telecast? How many live close enough to attend a game? Petition signing does not equal supporting WPS. I like many others have a like/dislike relationship w/ USSF, but I feel all of us have to respect their role in this. USSF is not supposed to give sanction to under qualified programs. If you’ve been involved in American soccer long enough (and I go back to 1975) you’ll recall that USSF was attacked f/ its lack of professionalism, ineptitude, etc. In a way we’re asking USSF to be mickey mouse about this. On a final sad note, whether WPS gets D1 or D2 status doesn’t change the fact WPS is in financial trouble, isn’t in the American sports concsiousness, and is currently delusional in its expectations.

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