How two wayward WPS investors could hurt the U.S. women’s national soccer team

If you want to know the difficulties U.S. women’s soccer would face if WPS disappeared, ask Canada.

The Canadian national team that faced the Washington Freedom last weekend was called together from all corners of the globe. American college soccer, WPS, the W-League, the Bundesliga and Scandinavia. The lack of cohesiveness showed, and the result flattered the visitors. Canada tied the Freedom 3-3, getting the two goal they needed for the tie while the Freedom’s defensive subs were getting acclimated. The balance of play went to the WPS side, not the national team.

“This looked like the first time the team was together,” said Canadian coach Carolina Morace, a pioneer of the game who scored 105 goals for Italy.

Morace sees several reasons for the disjointed play, one rather simple: “Unfortunately, we don’t have the league in Canada. And for us, this is a big problem. If you don’t play every Saturday or Sunday, you can’t have the rhythm of the game.”

Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod played for the Freedom in the friendly between her club and country, but she shared Morace’s frustration.

“Aside from Brazil, we’re the only team in the top 10 of the rankings without a domestic league,” she says. “It’s challenging. We’re spread all over the world. To get everyone together is difficult financially.”

A few days later, Canada fell from 10th to a tie for 11th in FIFA’s rankings. But the point is valid. Little is known about seventh-ranked North Korea, though at least one report suggests that talented players are shepherded into clubs at an early age. Japan has a women’s league entering its third decade and sometimes attracting offseason American players. European leagues are only getting better, with a formalized Champions League in place as extra incentive.

WPS has a solid claim to be the best league in the world, a huge advantage for the U.S. national team. And that’s one of many reasons why this week’s news out of St. Louis is so disturbing.

Abandoned by a couple of mysterious investors, with its last payroll met by bond money released by WPS, St. Louis Athletica has shut down in the middle of a season. The players — including U.S. mainstays Hope Solo, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny — will become free agents next week. (WPS isn’t running a dispersal draft because the contracts were held through Athletica, not the league. The Los Angeles Sol situation in the offseason was different because the league had taken over the team.)

The situation in St. Louis is unique, to put it mildly. Jeff Cooper had been the driving force behind everything in St. Louis — the long-running MLS bid, AC St. Louis of the nascent second-division NASL, and a reshaping of youth clubs in the region. Somewhere along the way, new investors Sanjeev and Heemal Vaid became the team’s majority owners.

Fake Sigi traces the story of Cooper and the Vaid brothers (and son? See Fake Sigi’s report) in a compelling roundup of news reports that leads us to ask a Watergate-style question: Who knew what, when?

WPS, it appears, knew nothing. “Cooper was the sole owner of Athletica, and appeared to have brought on those investors without properly bringing it to the attention of the WPS.” That matches other information I’ve received, and I’ve left messages seeking Cooper’s comment on the matter.

Cooper released a statement — notably absent from Athletica’s site — pinning the blame squarely on the Vaid brothers: “The investors who defaulted on a contract to fund Athletica through this season and beyond broke a promise to a league, team, players and a community, and that is what is most troubling about today’s development.”

What’s happening in St. Louis isn’t happening elsewhere in WPS. Unlike MLS, WPS has no overarching single-entity structure. The Boston Breakers and Washington Freedom shouldn’t be diminished by the dissolution of Los Angeles and St. Louis, just as Portsmouth’s financial problems shouldn’t reflect poorly on Fulham or Manchester United.

But in a league with minimal mainstream media coverage aside from team closures, perception can become reality. Brian Straus, who covered the Freedom in the WUSA days (2001-03), points to the problem: “It’s hard to take the WPS seriously at this point, and even harder to imagine that anyone else will step forward and view women’s soccer in the U.S. as a good investment.”

That’s a little harsh, and it’s worth noting that WPS 2010 has more active investors than MLS 2001, when the league was on the brink and was held up by three owners. Ratings on Fox Soccer Channel (the story uses households — viewership numbers are higher) are just fine for a league of modest ambitions. But it’s fair to say future sponsors will have plenty of questions. So will fans.

The counterargument is that the league will be stronger once it sheds investors who can’t or won’t fulfill the teams’ needs. Like a business that makes painful but necessary cuts, perhaps the league will be better off without trying to prop up a failing club, as Jeff Kassouf points out.

On the field, the game is healthy and significantly better.

“Ten years ago, when I was playing with Canada, everyone would boot it into the box and hope for the best,” McLeod says. “Now it’s constantly evolving and challenging for everyone.

Morace agrees that the game is more sophisticated, but she doesn’t see a transcendent figure. “Mia Hamm, there is not,” she says.

Perhaps not, but the U.S. team is looking quite good these days. Though Cat Whitehill says the disorganized German team the USA dismantled 4-0 last weekend “weren’t Germany,” the rout of the second-ranked team in the world was impressive. Germany may have the second-best women’s league in the world, and its national-team players have stayed in Germany to prepare for next year’s Women’s World Cup on home soil.

Next year, if Germany has a fully functioning women’s league and the USA doesn’t, advantage Germany.

At this point, there’s no reason to think that would be the case. But a show of force from investors, sponsors and fans wouldn’t hurt.

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One Response to How two wayward WPS investors could hurt the U.S. women’s national soccer team

  1. curiousleo says:

    Interesting addition to the various stories floating around about the Athletica situation. There is reporting yet to be done, though. I know you’ve got the skills to get the story. What’s the deal with the stadium that was supposedly “donated” and yet at one point was pointed to as a “serious cost overrun.”

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