Women's Professional Soccer: A mixed bag

Foreign players impressed and Sky Blue FC pulled off an amazing playoff run to lift the title, but low-scoring and modest crowds also featured in Year 1 of the women's league.

About the best thing you can say about Women's Professional Soccer is that it survived Year 1.

Launching in the worse economic climate since the Great Depression, Women's Professional Soccer wasn't given much of a chance to succeed, but Commissioner Tonya Antonucci is optimistic that all of WPS's owners will be back in 2010 when the league adds its eighth and ninth teams in Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Year 1 was a mixed bag. The level of play was quite high, but scoring was low. The league's foreign stars exceeded expectations. Some big American names underperformed. The league met its albeit very modest attendance goal, but most troubling, some teams reportedly lost twice as much as anticipated.

PLAY. WPS's level of play was often sharp and crisp, higher than the U.S. women's national team has produced in recent years.

One of the major concerns, though, is that despite collecting many of the world's best players only two of the seven teams - Washington and Los Angeles - managed to even average a goal a game. (By contrast, all but one MLS team - New York - was averaging more than a goal a game as of mid-September.)

WPS won't survive if scoring remains at 2.14 goals a game (or 1.67 in the playoffs).

PLAYERS. WPS coaches and general managers did a remarkable job of identifying and signing their imports, beginning with the Los Angeles Sol's Brazilian superstar, Marta, who led the league in scoring and was its MVP. The Brazilians Rosana and Francielle came through for champion Sky Blue FC in the playoffs, and Cristiane was Chicago's leading scorer. Too bad their countrywoman, Saint Louis striker Daniela, was lost for the season when injured by Abby Wambach.

The two Frenchwomen, Camille Abily of Los Angeles and Sonia Bompastor of Washington, were excellent. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Eniola Aluko, one of three Englishwomen named to the league's First XI. Her play for Saint Louis was a big reason the Athletica finished second behind Los Angeles in the regular season.

The play of the American stars was less consistent. Christie Rampone and Heather O'Reilly were excellent for Sky Blue FC in its amazing playoff run. Midfielders Shannon Boxx (Los Angeles) and Lori Chalupny (Saint Louis) were solid. Of the Americans who weren't regulars on the national team in recent years, Amy LePeilbet was the biggest surprise, earning all-league honors. Kacey White was outstanding on the left wing for Sky Blue FC. Players straight out of college who impressed included Brittany Bock (Los Angeles), Yael Averbuch (Sky Blue FC) and Megan Rapinoe (Chicago).

But Olympic hero Carli Lloyd had little impact at Chicago, and the Red Stars failed to make the playoffs.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Amy Rodriguez, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. She had only one goal for Boston.

SCHEDULING. Given the importance of the league's foreigners, it was a shame that the WPS playoffs conflicted with preparations for the 2009 European Women's Championship (won by Germany, which didn't send any players to WPS). All four playoff teams lost players to European teams. Perhaps the worst affected was runaway regular-season leader Los Angeles, which sorely missed Abily.

In the end, there was little that would have been done with the Euro '09 conflicts during the playoffs, but regular-season scheduling was another matter.

Los Angeles had three games in the last month of the season, a bye into the championship, and was noticeably rusty in the championship game against Sky Blue FC.

Playing in MLS stadiums was supposed to be a benefit for Chicago, Los Angeles and FC Gold Pride, but all they got were secondary playing dates - the same kind of dates MLS teams sought to avoid when they embarked on constructing soccer-specific stadiums.

ATTENDANCE. The seven teams averaged 4,493 fans per game - within the league projections of 4,000 to 6,000 for Year 1 - but there was little positive in the numbers. Los Angeles drew 14,832 for the opening game - the only game to hit five figures - but drew less than half that for the final. (So much for an extra week - or in the Sol's case an extra month - to sell the final.)

St. Louis (3,833), FC Gold Pride (3,667) and Sky Blue FC (3,651) fell below the minimum goal of 4,000. Gold Pride FC downsized its seating capacity at Buck Shaw Stadium after drawing only small crowds early in the season. On a positive note, the Athletica and Sky Blue FC drew good crowds for their last home games.

While young girls and their families formed the core audience, WPS went out of its way to stress the other groups it attracted. (Girls soccer players are notoriously poor soccer watchers, so WPS will struggle as long as they are its primary audience.)

BOTTON LINE. Losses for Year 1 were believed to be in the range of $1 million-$2 million per team - not bad when you consider the WUSA - with eight teams - blew through $40 million in 2001, its first year of operation.

The most worrying aspect of WPS's Year 1 numbers is that despite hitting attendance targets some teams reportedly lost twice as much as anticipated.

Lack of local sponsorship was blamed for the excessive losses. Yes, sports sponsorships dried up following the economic downturn, but they would have only covered part of the losses.

Teams will need to boost attendance in Year 2, but they begin with such low numbers that even an increase of 10 percent in average attendance will add little to the bottom line.

Fortunately, most owners showed a passion for their new venture and are committed.

One owner who didn't appear to be committed for the long run was AEG, whose president Tim Leiweke said in midseason that it had enough sports ventures to worry about and hoped to find new investors for the Sol.

(This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)



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