The National Women’s Soccer League hopes the third time’s the charm.
Perhaps more important, many view the NWSL as the key to securing a bright future for the U.S. women’s national team as well.
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The latest foray into top-tier professional women’s soccer is new to Kansas City, but it’s far from a new idea.
Twice before, professional women’s soccer leagues sprang up, but the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and its successor, Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011), lasted only three seasons each.
“From the first league we had to the second league, it was roughly the same business plan with new people making the same mistakes,” said former U.S. women’s national-team coach April Heinrichs, who was hired as U.S. Soccer’s first full-time women’s national-team technical director in 2011. “There were some lessons that had to be learned the hard way.”
With the launch of the NWSL, which kicked off its inaugural season April 13 when FC Kansas City played host to the Portland Thorns in a 1-1 draw at Shawnee Mission North District Stadium, hopes are high that the new league will succeed where previous incarnations failed.
“In terms of a goal that we have for this league, obviously we want to create a sustainable league — one that we can build upon as we go forward,” NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey said. “We’re building a platform so the players we have can compete at the highest level. We want to grow this game.”
The NWSL represents the best and possibly last chance — at least for a while — for women’s soccer to gain a toehold in the U.S. pro sports landscape.
Its backers hope to capitalize on the buzz created by the U.S. women’s run to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final and a gold-medal performance last summer at the London Olympics.
The most important factor for survival is the financial support from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Federation of Football, which all committed players and money to pay salaries.
That significantly reduces the payroll burden — Bailey said non-federation players will make from $6,000 to $30,000 this season — for the eight ownerships groups in the new league. It also ensured a high level of talent and, theoretically, a high level of play.
There are other promising signs, including a TV deal the NWSL announced last Thursday with Fox Sports, which will televise nine games, including the semifinals and championship game.
“We’re in the starting blocks, and I think we’ll get out of the blocks quickly with the start of this league,” Heinrichs said. “Every start-up company faces an uphill battle, but if we can have some patience and a focus more grounded in the game and development, more grounded in connecting with the community, there’s a chance to sustain something.”
That emphasis on development is central to the league’s mission, which is, in part, to ward off a decline for the U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico at the international level.
“U.S. Soccer has carried the torch for women’s soccer around the world for years, decades really,” Heinrichs said. “We now see some marvelous things going on in Europe. We see some great things happening in Asia, particularly Japan, and FIFA has created a platform with the Youth World Cups.”
Of course, that also has created a dilemma for U.S. soccer.
“The last 20 years, we relied heavily on talent and athleticism,” Heinrichs said. “The next 20 years, we’re going to have to develop our game more technically and tactically.”
Now, the U.S. finds itself falling behind countries with domestic leagues, most notably Germany and Japan, which won the 2011 World Cup, from a technical and tactical standpoint. Without remedy, the gap will widen.
“Before, once you were done playing in college, if you weren’t in with the national team, you went on to do something else,” Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone said. “Now, we’re hoping to keep a lot more players involved in the game at a very high level and continuing to develop them after college.”
Still, building a sustainable league will require patience.
“You have to be rational and understand who and what you are,” FC Kansas City president Brian Budzinski said. “Would we love to play in a 20,000-seat stadium and fill it up all the time? Of course we would, but you have to understand where the women’s game is. Soccer has made tremendous strides in the last five or 10 years, but it’s still going to be a slow build.”