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Postgrad options for women remain limited

The future of women's soccer in America remains a topic that for the most part remains largely under the radar of most of U.S. media.

The lack of a full professional league in the U.S. has created something of a wall for nearly all the top female college players. Graduation becomes the ultimate up-or-out test for many American players. Once their college eligibility is up, either they are deemed good enough to be granted a precious spot in the U.S. women's permanent residency program, essentially becoming a professional player for the national team, or they are set adrift among a hodgepodge of other options, most of them in leagues abroad.

Many college stars maintain their game form with participation in the W-league during the college offseason. For all the advantages that versatility offers, it doesn't include the incentive of a full-time professional model that the Women's United Soccer Association once made possible to those players finished with college.

That's not to say the current semipro W-league isn't viable in the U.S. The de facto top level of women's club soccer has soldiered on as a model of stability in comparison to the WUSA. The W-league also features a flexible structure that allows current college players to join and perform for squads without losing their NCAA eligibility. For those who are done with college, though, there are often hard decisions to make.

The choice to leave a profession one loves isn't easier when it simply becomes difficult to make a living at it. It's an especially challenging prospect for those female players who are late bloomers or are just outside the top level of national team recognition. They must decide whether to put in the effort and sacrifice to stay in top shape -- hoping the return of the league is just around the corner. The cold fact is that soccer skills can deteriorate quickly if top-level competition isn't at hand.

The timeline of preparation for a new league is such that its arrival would need to be proclaimed a full year ahead of time. This year's senior class still will not have a WUSA to play in next year, for example.

Tonya Antonucci has been in charge of the process to bring the league's return to fruition. She has yet to commit to a specific timeline, though there are tentative plans.

"We're still hopeful for a 2008 start," said Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer Federation president. "I talk to Tonya pretty regularly, and she's trying to put the pieces together. It's hard. Trying to make a business -- not just a sports business but any business -- work, it's hard."

Rounding up new sponsors isn't easy when many might feel burned. The interest in women's soccer has lagged considerably in the U.S. since the retirement of Mia Hamm.

"Mia Hamm is an icon outside of soccer and outside of sports," pointed out Gulati. "She was a huge star. Nike named a building after her. Michael Jordan did a commercial with her."

Although the success of the 1999 Women's World Cup had many of the founding members of the WUSA outearning Major League Soccer players via payments in the exhibition tours that immediately followed, the WUSA itself suffered an estimated $80 million in losses.

"It's harder when there's been a track record which is not positive with the collapse of the WUSA," Gulati said of the investment options. "But I think they'll get the pieces together. I'm optimistic and hopeful for 2008. Guaranteed? No. But nothing is."

One thing the U.S. women's team shouldn't have to worry about in 2007 is replicating the results of 1999 as a trigger to start the league. Gulati denied that was a concern.

"If we're going to start in 2008, I think we'll know that before the women's World Cup," Gulati stated. "It would have to be. Seven to six months is just not enough time. Does [the U.S. winning the Cup] give you a big boost? Of course it does. But I think people recognize that winning the World Cup on U.S. soil, like happened in 1999, is a different phenomenon."

Although the college game has developed its own stars, the luster fades somewhat without a stage and media coverage for their skills after graduation. That's a major reason the big draw of the women's game is somewhat lacking

"The Mia, Julie, Brandi factor is not there," Gulati acknowledged. "Is it important for the [U.S. women's] team to be successful? The answer is yes. Is it a necessary component? Let's put it this way -- it's neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the start of a league. We can start a league without that. Does it help? Sure. It gets the people excited."

Some former college stars, such as Lindsay Tarpley, who have secured spots with the national team residency, are already key contributors, aspiring to make the starting roster of the World Cup team.

"We need people like that. I know that Tarpley is one of the most opportunistic players I've played with, and I'm just excited to have her there," Abby Wambach said of Tarpley.

However, other quality college players are left on the fringes. Defender Jill Oakes graduated from UCLA last year and is working with the team as an assistant coach. She is one of a number of former college standouts who could have benefited from the increased possibilities to prove oneself that a league such as the WUSA would provide.

Anson Dorrance, coach of North Carolina's women's team, reportedly rued the failure of the squad in years past to make the College Cup because it robbed some players he felt were deserving of residency spots of the chance to get the necessary exposure. Midfielder Kacey White, a key player for the UNC team in 2005, made the difficult decision to play in Sweden after failing to land a residency position. Her tenacity was rewarded when she made the 2006 Peace Cup roster and earned her first cap with the national team. White made her case, helping to set up a goal against the Netherlands, although she later failed to make the roster for the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.

Before the 2007 Women's World Cup, though, everyone will wait to hear whether that next generation of women's college players will have a league of their own in which to shine.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.