The women try to find a way
Despite their success on the world stage, the future of women's soccer in the U.S. looks cloudy without a league. Plans to minimize the effect on the national team are being put in place.
Both senior national teams are in training this January in Los Angeles. The men are preparing for a series of friendlies before the World Cup in Germany, and the women are competing to make the roster for the Four Nations tournament in China.
The players Greg Ryan has assembled have passed another year without a professional domestic league. Some of the younger contingent from college never got a chance to play in the Women's United Soccer Association, which suspended operations in 2003 after three years of competition.
While it existed, the WUSA was a key developer of U.S. talent, especially for players such as Shannon Boxx, who recently finished third in FIFA's Female Player of the Year voting. Those on the rosters of the league scattered after it folded.
"Many of our players are playing abroad right now," Ryan acknowledged. "Others are playing with W-league teams, WPSL teams."
Though efforts and initiatives have been launched to revive a women's pro league since the demise of the WUSA, none have come to fruition. Players are left without the ability to earn a living as professionals in the U.S. Difficult career decisions affect not only the college stars who graduate into an uncertain sporting future, but the veterans as well.
Star forward Abby Wambach was one of the players who faced the limited options available in 2005.
"Some players went overseas and that was a great choice for them. At this point in my life, I wanted to buy a house."
She stayed in California, near the training camp site at the Home Depot Center and scrambled to find ways to stay in top shape between national team performances.
"I think being active is just my biggest thing. I've been working out with Athlete's Performance and I'm on a team -- AJAX -- in Southern California right now. I train with the men's team."
The players have to continue their resourcefulness for at least another year.
"Clearly, we will not have a women's league in '06." U.S. Soccer President, Dr. Robert Contiguglia, stated. "US Soccer is funding the efforts to have a league after '06, but it's a struggle. I don't know what the outcome will be."
Even those no longer in the game are affected. The failure of the WUSA leaves a painful mark on the legacy of the famous retired players who can otherwise look back at great times.
Yet it is hard to imagine how anyone could expect more from the generation of U.S. women's soccer players who brought their sport to the center stage of the national consciousness - especially in the amazingly successful 1999 World Cup, hosted and won by the U.S.
"They've done it in every right way," marveled Wambach. "Can you imagine being these women who retire and see how much growth they've personally had an impact on in this game? It's a beautiful thing. But I think one of the regrets is that the WUSA isn't still running now."
Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and so many others on the national team were bright, hardworking and personable. The media swooned, writing inspirational columns by the mile. Thousands came to watch them play, totaling numbers unprecedented in audiences for women's team sports.
That provided the impetus for the women's league - before the viewer totals and attendance figures year after year revealed just how extraordinary of a phenomenon 1999 was. Not even the Women's World Cup and the soccer at the Olympic Games since then have garnered as much attention. The "girls of summer" (as the players had been dubbed) and their investors got burned by believing 1999 was only the start of even greater enthusiasm for their sport.
It wasn't as if some anti-soccer bias brought the sport down. Most successful women's sports center on individuals, not team play. Women's softball suffered even more of a setback after causing a stir in the Olympics. Not only did the pro league fold, but the sport was dropped from the 2012 Games entirely. The WNBA gamely continues, though attendance figures aren't that much higher than the WUSA's.
"I think women's team sports are just difficult to have as fulltime professional leagues," admitted Contiguglia. "The marketplace is so crowded with various sports, from X-games to competition from so many other sports that it is hard for women's team sports to succeed."
Though the women's national team first experienced great success on the international stage without a league, the increasing competition in the world game has made duplicating those feats much tougher. Other countries are now using their league players to improve their national teams.
Ryan knows the connection was crucial.
"Obviously, the league really helps - not only are they staying fit, but [the players] are getting games and they're continuing to develop."
Contiguglia was also aware of what an asset a successful league could be for the game in general and the national team in particular.
"We definitely would prefer having a women's professional league, because it's a training ground for our national players."
The current reality of the American women's game, however, has administration setting up contingency plans to compensate for the lack of a league. Though the women have yet to sign a labor contract as the men have with U.S. Soccer, the basic terms for an agreement have been laid out.
"If we don't have a women's professional league," said Contiguglia, "U.S. Soccer will step up and finance our players as fulltime athletes."
Ryan considered the success of league and national team symbiotic.
"US Soccer completely supports having a league come back into existence. They help each other. US Soccer supports the league - the league supports the national team."
Yet funding players instead of a league was an option.
"The collective bargaining agreements that we're talking about will allow our female players to be fulltime professional athletes and get a fair wage whether they play in a professional league or not," explained Contiguglia.
The details of who qualifies for the subsidies and how, plus the numbers involved, were not revealed.
The bargaining clout of the women's team has also been weakened considerably by the loss of nearly all the "name" players from the team's golden age.
Nor does it seem as if major sponsors are lining up to help relaunch the women's game at present. Nike now airs commercials featuring members of the men's national team, when it previously showcased Hamm alongside its marquee star, Michael Jordan.
Without a league to introduce players to fans, new national team stars, such as Lindsey Tarpley and Hope Solo, will have limited opportunities to present their skills to the public, given the current slate of games set up for the USWNT. Because of their near-anonymity, and despite the team's undefeated record last year, the players are not in an ideal position to negotiate.
Ultimately, the importance of job security may be more vital than quibbling over specific conditions. Contiguglia was confident a deal would soon be struck.
"The labor agreement that we have, which hopefully will be finalized shortly, will take us well through 2010. So we should have labor peace both on the men's and the woman's side for quite some time."
MLS expanded by two teams and a new reserve league in 2005, giving even more male players the chance to compete on a professional level. The profile of MLS abroad has slowly grown. The recent signing of their labor agreement will allow the men's team to concentrate on their performances on the field without distraction.
During the time the WUSA existed, it was generally considered the top league for its sport in the world. While the same cannot be said of MLS, the key point remains that MLS is still here. By all indications, it is progressing and aiding and abetting the national team's advancement.
The women, meanwhile, have achieved the distinction of having their international success far outstrip that of their defunct league. Yet maintaining that level of achievement looks precarious without the helping hand of development and practice provided by the pro game.
"In order for women's soccer to be a sport that people notice in the United States, the women's national team has to keep winning and be successful," believed Wambach.
"The WUSA really needs to come back," she stressed, noting that the history of the women's game in America merited the effort.
"We have to secure sponsorships. We have to do whatever we can, not just for the people who are our future, but for the people who are our past as well."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org