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Dec 30, 2006

Relaunch of WUSA set for spring 2008

Like the "Little Engine That Could," women's professional soccer climbed ever closer to the top of the hill on Tuesday with the announcement by the Women's Soccer Initiative Inc. that six investors have signed on the dotted line and that an application for first division status has been submitted to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The news is the latest sign that WSII CEO Tonya Antonucci is delivering on her plan to revive the WUSA to begin play in the spring of 2008. In an interview with ESPN.com in December, Antonucci said that in order to make a revived league viable, WSII would rely heavily on sharing infrastructure with clubs in Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues, and in particular the soccer-specific stadiums that they own. While Tuesday's announcement contains a few exceptions to that plan, Antonucci appears to be making good on that pledge.

WSII has secured the signature of MLS heavyweight Anschutz Entertainment Group to operate a team out of the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., and two other investment groups are also looking to set up shop in MLS stadiums. A group headed by Jack Hanks and Brent Coralli is in discussions with Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, while the (deep breath) Women's Great Lakes Soccer Initiative, spearheaded by former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt, will look to make its home at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.

The other groups that were named include Washington, D.C.-based Freedom Soccer LLC, headed by original WUSA founder John Hendricks, and St. Louis United Soccer, which is led by Jeff Cooper. Cooper's group is the same outfit that has been trying to build a soccer-specific stadium in the St. Louis area in the hopes of attracting an MLS franchise. As far as a women's team is concerned, a temporary venue is close to being finalized, with Cooper saying that the Anheuser-Busch Soccer Complex is the front-runner.

An unnamed sixth consortium has also put pen to paper and, according to Antonucci, uncertainty over where the team will reside is the reason for its low profile.

Each of the six groups has signed a letter of intent and has made a financial commitment to the league. When asked what that commitment entailed, Antonucci said that the investors had all shown an ability to handle an annual budget of between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

That may sound like chump change in some circles, but getting people to part with their hard-earned cash is about as easy as separating Charlton Heston from his trusty Sharps rifle. And after two years of working in stealth mode, Tuesday's announcement by WSII constitutes significant progress toward the league's rebirth.

"I think this has been a huge hurdle [to get over]," Antonucci said of getting investors to sign up. "I think a lot of things will flow more quickly from now on. We have these investors who are committed and invested in this, and they are going to be driving this process forward very actively on a number of fronts."

Taking a bit of shine off the news was the fact that the six investor groups are two short of the minimum Antonucci has said are needed to start up the league. But she added that negotiations are ongoing with several cities, including Rochester, N.Y., Cary, N.C. and Atlanta. Given that each of these cities already has a soccer-specific stadium in place, they would appear to have a leg up on the competition, but there also are other candidates, with Boston, Hartford and San Diego all in the mix.

And David Alioto, executive vice president of San Jose-based Earthquakes LLC, confirmed that his organization is in the running for an expansion team that would begin play in 2009, contingent upon a stadium being built in the San Francisco Bay Area and an MLS team returning to San Jose. Given all of these possibilities, Antonucci expects more investors to hop on board.

"We believe that reaching this milestone, and getting the critical mass of these six [groups] to sign on, will generate the momentum we need to get to eight teams," Antonucci said.

And if those markets don't sign up?

"We'll launch with six," Antonucci said. "It's not our goal, it's not our intention, but we're prepared to do that if that's the situation."

If that were to happen, it would represent exactly the kind of sliding expectations that Antonucci has been careful to avoid during her tenure with WSII. But Antonucci feels that since six teams are the minimum number needed by the USSF to grant first division status, now was the best time to go ahead with announcing those investors that have come on board.

"We saw it as an opportunity to say, 'We have these six investors,'" Antonucci said. "We could have waited longer, but we think that the announcement will more quickly get us to our goal of eight teams."

Regardless of the number of teams, plenty of skepticism remains about the extent to which the league will be embraced upon its return. Perhaps mindful of those doubts, Antonucci clarified her position about what her expectations for attendance will be when the league begins play, stating that the low-end projections are for crowds of about 4,500 per game.

Given the lack of attention that women's soccer has received over the past several years and the retirement of high-profile stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, even that could be a difficult goal to reach. But investors such as Cooper are confident that an increasingly busy calendar for the U.S. women's national team, including a World Cup in 2007 and an Olympics in 2008, will help the league rekindle some of that lost momentum.

"It's very difficult to replace personalities and soccer players like [Hamm and Chastain]," Cooper said. "However, I think once America and the world gets to know this current women's team, they're going to find that not only are there some fantastic players on the team, but also some great personalities."

There is still much work to be done before deciding which players to market. But with six investors now in the fold, Antonucci can breathe a bit easier knowing that a huge deadline has been met.

"I was conscious of the clock ticking," Antonucci admitted. "But I think where we are now, we're in a 'go' position for 2008."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.