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Jan 12, 2009

Marta simply a must-have signing for WPS

A year and a half after her brilliant two-goal performance in Brazil's 4-0 rout of the United States in the Women's World Cup semifinals -- and only months after Hope Solo kept her off the score sheet in the thrilling Olympic final -- Brazilian striker Marta is being welcomed by Women's Professional Soccer, the new American women's league. The three-time FIFA World Player of the Year has announced she will join the WPS to play for the Los Angeles Sol. Reports from Sweden suggest she has a three-year deal worth about $1.5 million. It's worth noting that the Sol are owned by AEG, the same group that owns the Galaxy and brought David Beckham to MLS.

On the surface, the numbers are staggering in the world of women's team sports. By contrast, WNBA salaries max out at just under $100,000 per year. Though athletes like Candace Parker earn more when endorsements are factored into the equation, Marta -- if the contract is even close to what reports suggest -- easily becomes the highest-salaried female athlete in the country.

Even if league sponsor Puma, who is also her own sponsor, pays half of it, it still is an extraordinary number for a brand-new league to pay in the middle of a recession. The WPS has said it will run on a much sounder business model than the WUSA, which ran out of cash in 2003, after just three seasons. Can the WPS afford to pay one player such a hefty sum?

For the league, the answer is simple: The WPS had to have Marta, no matter the cost. What's the point of having a league if you can't go get the best player in the world? How can you convince potential fans -- and other international stars -- to come to games if the best player in the world isn't in the league? NBA superstar Kobe Bryant attended women's soccer games during the Olympics in China, just to see Marta. Maybe he'll go to some Sol games. And Marta is the league's best shot for highlights to appear on national television. It's a no-brainer. Find the money somewhere. You have to take that chance. Do whatever it takes to convince the Brazilian star to leave her Swedish team behind and move to America.

Not signing her would have been a huge blow to the league. Economic times are tough, but the WPS has to put the best players on the field and hope it succeeds. It's going to be hard enough to convince fans to attend the games, and the league needs to be as competitive as possible and have as many stars as it can.

For her team, the Los Angeles Sol, the answer is a little more complicated. The expectations for the team will be high. While the team looks solid on paper, how will it all come together?

Los Angeles was allocated Aly Wagner, Stephanie Cox and Shannon Boxx. The most interesting of the three is Wagner. When she's healthy, she is the best American ball distributor, but she has been vexed by injuries for the past few years. If she's good to go, she and Marta could become a lethal combination. If she's not, it could be a frustrating summer for the Sol.

The rest of Los Angeles' roster, assuming they are able to sign all their internationals, is headlined by talented strikers Han Duan (China) and Aya Miyama (Japan), and a solid goalkeeper in Karina LeBlanc of Canada. If head coach Abner Rogers can make it work, the team should be competitive.

But the seven-team WPS is going to be a competitive league; much more competitive than other women's leagues in Sweden, England and France. Most of these leagues are dominated by one or two star-studded teams, with the only real intrigue occurring when the leagues get together each year for the UEFA Women's Cup. It's a showcase for teams like Sweden's Umea IK (Marta's former team) to face, say, England's Arsenal, which is headlined by World Player of the Year nominee Kelly Smith. If Smith signs with Boston, which acquired her rights in the WPS international draft, Los Angeles would meet up with them regularly during the 21-game season.

But it's not just Boston that will have good players; it's all the teams. For example: St. Louis is headed by two franchise players in Americans Lori Chalupny and Hope Solo. Sky Blue FC (NJ/NY) will feature Heather O'Reilly, Natasha Kai, Australian striker Sarah Walsh and U.S. national team captain Christie Rampone, one of the defenders who shut Marta down in the 2008 Olympic gold-medal game. As for the Washington Freedom -- which Los Angeles will face in the inaugural game March 29 -- Abby Wambach could be joined by Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod and Australian striker Lisa De Vanna (who both performed brilliantly in the 2007 WWC), and one of the best midfielders in the world in Japan's Homare Sawa.

As the Galaxy learned with Beckham, having a star player will help the team, but it does not guarantee them success. They'll need to continue to bring in more internationals and draft well in the WPS' college draft Friday. Marta will need to play well to make her contract worth it, but Los Angeles is tasked with building a team around her that allows her -- and the league -- to shine.

Jacqueline Purdy is an editor for espnradio.com. She also hosts the ESPN Women's Soccernet podcast on ESPN PodCenter. She can be reached at jacquelinepurdy@gmail.com.

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