Champions choose WUSA ù with or without approval
As U.S. Soccer officials work feverishly behind the scenes to broker some sort of agreement between the primary entities competing to helm a Division I professional women's soccer league, the country's most celebrated players ù those who stand to benefit most greatly from next year's expected start-up ù are beginning to flex their muscle.
The process to determine which group is given the reins to a pro league remains in its early stages, but the 20 members of the United States' winning 1999 Women's World Cup squad insist the decision has already been made by those who matter most ù them.
Any speculation on the subject was put to rest with a missive issued April 17 in which the players made it clear they would "only play professionally for WUSA."
Completed applications to stage a Division I league aren't due until May 1, and it likely will be another three months before U.S. Soccer decrees which of the groups will be permitted to proceed under its umbrella.
The WWC champions aligned last fall with the Women's United Soccer Association, created by Discovery Communications boss John S. Hendricks, who has unveiled an impressive collection of investors, a television pact with Turner Sports and plans for an eight- to 10-team league based on both coasts.
PLAYER POWER. The foundation of this enterprise is agreements reached with each of the 20 players; everything else ù the investors, the TV deal, everything ù stems from this. The players, it would appear, hold the real power, and they're starting to brandish it.
Major League Soccer has announced it, too, will seek U.S. Soccer sanction as a Division I women's outfit, but its leaders would like nothing more than to work with Hendricks' group on construction of a league. The groups are involved in ongoing discussions, but Hendricks has said that involvement between them would be limited to "cooperation" on scheduling, promotion, cost-sharing and stadium development.
If the sides cannot agree on a plan, they likely will battle for U.S. Soccer's blessing in what many fear could dissolve into a divisive campaign that could harm the sport on these shores.
No matter the outcome, the 20 champions are adamant about their future. With or without U.S. Soccer's permission, they plan to be on the field in April or May 2001 competing for WUSA teams.
NO ROOM FOR TWO. WUSA officials express confidence that their enterprise will receive USSF backing. They claim they've greatly surpassed the Division I standards the Federation created in 1997, and they'll get the chance to prove it when a subcommittee of U.S. Soccer's board of directors begins looking at the applications in May.
Should additional groups meet the standards, it is likely that only one of the applicants will be sanctioned. Nobody believes there is room for two professional women's soccer leagues in America, and a PricewaterhouseCoopers study should confirm that before April is over.
If MLS is chosen to go forward, what will WUSA do?
"The ownership group is very solid behind that," says WUSA adviser Tony DiCicco, who coached the WWC winners. "We don't want it to come to that, certainly, but we think sanction will ultimately come from the marketplace."
What that would mean is unclear. By competing without sanction, the U.S. players might forfeit their right to play internationally. The league could be barred from using Federation referees. Foreign players ù WUSA claims to have received more than 100 letters-of-intent or oral commitments from players around the globe ù might stay away.
"These are hypotheticals," says Robert Contiguglia, U.S. Soccer's president, "but I think it would be difficult for any league with foreign players to play in the United States without the permission of the Federation. We have to give permission for foreign players to come here, and they have to get permission from their respective national federations. I think it would be very difficult for that to happen.
"It's possible, I guess. I don't know."
He hopes it doesn't come to that ù bringing WUSA and MLS together is a priority for him at the moment ù and neither does WUSA. But the players have spoken.
"Talking with the whole team," midfielder Julie Foudy said, "they all say the same thing. We will only play for WUSA. We feel with all the qualities they have, all the standards they've exceeded, [U.S. Soccer sanction is] going to happen.
"We're hoping the Federation sees it in the same light. We can't control it, of course, but our loyalty and commitment are to the WUSA."
Of course, if somebody with MLS ù say Philip Anschutz ù stepped forward with million-dollar contracts for the women ...
WUSA, without sanction, might be able to go forward without trouble. A similar situation was possible when MLS received USSF approval as the men's Division I league in 1994.
"When MLS was voted in, the regulations were fairly clear," said United Soccer Leagues commissioner Francisco Marcos, whose top league ù the A-League ù also bid for Division I status. "MLS got the nod with a two-year exclusive period of incubation. Another league could exist for two years without status, call itself anything it wanted, and two years later, if it's done everything by the book and met the criteria, it would have to be accepted as a second Division I league.
"I'm fairly certain the same process could happen here."
Contiguglia says he's not sure if that would be possible but that he would be opposed to a second top league if it weren't in the best interests of the sport.
GOBBLING UP THE TALENT. There is no reason to doubt the 20 players' resolve. Each of them figures to be handsomely compensated by WUSA, although how much each would be paid remains a mystery. The letter-of-intent Hendricks sent to prospective players includes an accompanying page that details the "base salary compensation schedule," and the only group whose salary is not detailed is the WWC champions.
They "negotiated separately as founding members of WUSA," according to the document, which spells out salary ranges for other U.S. national team pool players ($35,000-$45,000), players from foreign national teams ($35,000-$45,000) and "U.S. players from domestic and foreign leagues and others" ($24,000-$35,000).
The letter-of-intent claims to be binding in two areas ù those who sign must "negotiate exclusively with WUSA" through the end of 2000 and agree they "will not discuss nor execute playing agreements that extend beyond December 31, 2000 except with WUSA," and they agree to keep all WUSA information they receive "in strict confidence." There is no mention in the document about sanctioning.
Whether the letter is enforceable would be up to the courts to decide, but WUSA's intent is to gobble up all the talent so that another league, whether sanctioned or not, would have to go forward without the country's ù or the world's ù best players.
All of this could be nothing more than a maneuver to force U.S. Soccer's hand. If the champions, America's darlings all, refuse to play elsewhere ù and promise to play for WUSA with or without approval ù the Federation might face another public-relations disaster, a la the contract fight, if it chooses to follow another path.
bySoccer America senior editor Scott French