Marta heads billing for inaugural WPS season
Five and a half years after the WUSA folded, women's soccer will begin again at the professional level when the WPS gets under way Sunday with the inaugural game between the Washington Freedom and the Los Angeles Sol. Five other teams, the Boston Breakers, Sky Blue FC (New Jersey/New York), Chicago Red Stars, St. Louis Athletica and FC Gold Pride (Bay Area), will begin play a week later in a 20-game schedule leading up to the championship game on Aug. 22.
With a new business model and a host of top-level U.S. and foreign internationals, the WPS aims to make women's professional soccer stick for good in the United States.
Story lines to follow:
1. Fans and the economy
The economy is the story line that no sports league can escape. It seems almost impossible to start a successful league during these times, especially a restart of a women's soccer league that folded in 2003. This time around, though, the WPS has a dramatically different business model than the WUSA.
One key change is that the WPS will spend less money than the WUSA did. Salaries for players and staff will be lower, and teams will play in smaller venues. In addition, the league won't own all the teams, as each team will operate on its own. "Without having the responsibilities of covering the losses of other teams, that's the biggest difference," said Breakers general manager Joe Cummings, who also was GM of the Breakers in the WUSA. "We all have to operate our business within the business model that was set up for us and the operating agreement, but I'm concerned just now with the Boston Breakers. We will conduct business as we see fit."
Despite the changed economic model, WPS still needs fans to go to the games. The goal for each team is to have an average attendance between 4,000 and 6,000 to break even. The league says several teams already have sold 1,000 season tickets.
If WPS can get fans to attend, more sponsors and increased media coverage will be more likely to follow. For now, though, the league is relying on grassroots promotion and the Internet. For example, Chicago's team president and CEO, Peter Wilt, uses Twitter to provide frequent updates on the team. "We have a strong commitment to [the Internet] because ... we recognize that's where are a lot of our fans are," Red Stars GM Marcia McDermott said. "It's also a cost-effective way to reach a much larger audience, and that's what's important."
2. Team chemistry
Starting this new league is a bit like starting seven expansion teams. There will be growing pains. "Going back to WUSA days when we started the league, it takes a couple of months for players to really jell and players to really fit," said Freedom coach Jim Gabarra, who coached the Freedom in the WUSA. With only a month to prepare for the season, the team that figures things out the fastest and plays well early will be in the best position to succeed.
Making things even more difficult were the Algarve Cup and the Cyprus Cup, which took place during WPS spring training in early March. Thanks to those tournaments, some teams didn't get their best players into camp until two or three weeks after the preseason began. Breakers coach Tony DiCicco, who was without six likely starters until the middle of March, said, "Every team is kind of in that same situation, but we just have to do the best we can and evolve beyond that. ... It's [important] that we focus on our team and get us to as high a playing level as we can."
3. The Marta factor
Having the best player in the world is a huge boost to the league talentwise. Marta also should provide the best shot for the league's highlights to be shown nationally or take off virally. "To have the world's best player is a gold standard," league commissioner Tonya Antonucci said. "She's the kind of player that everyone wants to play with and against." NBA superstar Kobe Bryant welcomed Marta to Los Angeles at a news conference in early March, and the league can only hope that similar media attention follows her throughout the season.
4. Abby Wambach's health
All indications are that Freedom forward Abby Wambach, who broke her leg in July, will be back on the pitch and prepared to play the full 90 minutes in the inaugural game. Gabarra has been pleased with Wambach's effort during preseason play. "I was expecting her to still be a few weeks away, and maybe for the opening game to have her for maybe 45 minutes, maybe 60 minutes at the most, but she's done everything and hasn't had to take any days off."
It's important for Wambach, one of the most popular players on the U.S. women's team, to be able to play in games and draw attention to the league. It's also important for her team, as the Freedom will need her on offense to help win games.
Players to watch
1. Marta, Los Angeles. Marta is clearly the No. 1 player to watch in the WPS. The three-time FIFA World Player of the Year will be the star attraction, will draw the attention of defenders and will be at the center of Los Angeles' offense. Sol coach Abner Rogers has been impressed by what he has seen so far in training camp. "She's truly amazing," Rogers said. "She's a team player. She's extremely competitive, so everything she does, whether it's a footrace, whether it's fitness -- she wants to win everything."
2. Cristiane, Chicago. Brazilian striker Cristiane will be the focal point of Chicago's offense. The Red Stars are full of attacking players, and Cristiane is one of the best. She could be in a great position to score many goals. "She's one of the best goal scorers out there, and the style that she plays fits the style we want to play," McDermott said. "You couldn't send a better message about wanting to play exciting soccer than to bring Cristiane to play in Chicago."
3. Kelly Smith, Boston. With so many top-tier players, Boston's Kelly Smith won't be the sole target of the Breakers' offense, but she is the one of the world's best players and will score goals. The English international easily could end up as the top scorer on the Breakers, who look like the early favorite to finish at the top of the league.
4. Sara Walsh, Natasha Kai, New Jersey-New York. Sky Blue FC strikers Sara Walsh (Australia) and Natasha Kai (U.S. national team) could fast become the most dangerous offensive duo in the WPS. Both play at a high pace and could quickly turn games into track meets.
5. Hope Solo, St. Louis. U.S. national team goalkeeper Hope Solo followed up her Olympic gold-medal game shutout of Brazil with a strong Algarve Cup performance in March, proving she is the best goalkeeper in the world. St. Louis will depend on Solo to shut down all the brilliant goal scorers in the league. Solo, for her part, is confident in her team. "On paper, I think we look amazing, but we all know that on paper doesn't exactly translate onto the field," she said. "But, I will stand by my belief that we will be 2009 champions. I'm gonna stand by that."
6. Christie Rampone, New Jersey-New York. Sky Blue FC's Christie Rampone will be the leader of the team and will be the anchor on defense. As captain and central defender on the U.S. national team, Rampone was one of the keys to the shutout of Brazil at the Beijing Olympics this past summer and will look to do the same for Sky Blue.
7. Kristin Luckenbill, Boston. Luckenbill starred in the WUSA and was goalkeeper of the year when her Carolina Courage team won the championship in 2002. With a host of offensive players and a defensive line led by the United State's Heather Mitts and England's Alex Scott, it might be easy to overlook Luckenbill, but she could come up huge for the Breakers.
Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She is also an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, followed on Twitter or friended on ESPN's fan profiles.