Forgive me for going personal in this post, but it’s important to trace the history here:
A few times in the five-year gap between the WUSA and WPS, I made the trek out to the Maryland SoccerPlex to see the Washington Freedom, still kicking around and keeping the name and flame alive for women’s soccer in the region. In 2004, they were an exhibition team playing against more structured teams such as the W-League’s New Jersey Wildcats, who featured WUSA stars Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon. By 2007, they were in the W-League with a strong mix of WUSA vets and younger players who would end up on the roster when WPS finally launched in 2009.
It was an admirable effort to keep things going, and they did more than just gather a group of 18 for a matchday. The Freedom built a legitimate club with a well-established youth program.
So when the news came last night from Jeff Kassouf that the Washington Freedom and FC Gold Pride were folding, it’s safe to say my shock and disbelief spoiled an otherwise entertaining MLS playoff game.
Not that bad news from WPS should be a shock. We’ve seen a couple of teams fold, one in midseason. When The Washington Post‘s Steve Goff made a rare appearance at a Freedom game after a season in which several home games were completely uncovered by the Post staff, someone leaked to him the news that WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci was being pushed out and the Freedom’s owners — the Hendricks family — were uncertain about their commitment for next season. The interpretation of Antonucci’s exit is debatable, and we still have to wonder who in Washington (well, Montgomery County, Md., to be precise) has an anonymous beef with what’s left of the WPS front office. And we have to wonder if that beef is preventing the Freedom from paying the up-front money into an escrow fund designed to prevent a repeat of the St. Louis situation, in which the Athletica disappeared midseason when funding dried up.
After Kassouf’s post, WPS PR consultant Rob Penner, who was traveling, got on Twitter quickly to say there’s no announcement today and that the league’s board is still working to get everyone on board for next season. Kassouf posted a Twitter update saying the announcement of teams folding may be pushed back from Monday but that Freedom and Gold Pride missed October payments. “Miracles ($) needed,” Kassouf concluded.
That’s a fair conclusion. The Hendricks family had been quietly seeking new investors for a while. No organization ever wants to appear desperate, but that search needs to get a little noisier.
I can’t speak too much to FC Gold Pride’s situation, though I’d think the team could find a middle ground between absorbing the brunt of Marta’s salary and going into extinction. Fake Sigi, in a sound summary of the situation, points out that the team was rather bullish a month ago.
Fake Sigi also notes the similarity between MLS 2001 and WPS 2010, which Dustin Christmann also noted on Twitter in response to a curious Goff Tweet saying WPS was “becoming a cause rather a business.” That statement seems a little more applicable to a club like Barcelona, which tolerates a lot of financial risk and operates under the famous “mas que un club” (more than a club) philosophy. Phil Anschutz being the reclusive man that he is, we’ll never know what sort of faith convinced him to lay down the nine-figure investment he made in MLS. And we don’t know whether the Hendricks family keep the Freedom alive through so many lean years because (A) they believed in women’s soccer in the abstract or (B) they expected to make a fortune down the road. Or some combination of the two.
Gayle Bryan, in another excellent summary of what we know and what we don’t, asks the most pertinent question about the Freedom:
The Hendricks have stuck with the Washington Freedom through the WUSA. They kept the team together when there was no professional league and they’ve made it through the first two seasons of WPS. Why bail now?
Indeed — pulling the plug now would seem to be the equivalent of working through a maze, ruling out several possible paths and then saying, “Nah, let’s quit.” WPS is going all-in on the most slimmed-down business structure imaginable for a national league (and if there are no California teams, it’s more of a regional league, with four teams on the Northeast I-95 corridor along with Chicago and Atlanta). Seems only fair to give that structure one year and see if there’s a Women’s World Cup boost, then re-evaluate.
The future for women’s soccer may indeed be what the Freedom and other top-tier W-League teams did from 2004 to 2008. NCAA regulations are getting looser, so putting college players and national team stars in the same league might be less problematic than it has been. The W-League already pulled that off for years, somehow making it worthwhile for a handful of foreign players and fringe U.S. national teamers to play alongside the NCAA’s best.
If that’s the future, the Freedom would be well-placed to thrive. If WPS survives into 2012, the Freedom surely should be part of it.
Keeping a valuable organization alive is no more of a “cause” than keeping MLS alive in 2001. With their backs against the wall, MLS owners (all three of them, at the time) had to figure out how to make things work. Women’s pro soccer backers are at that point now. They know the WUSA model is too big, at least for now. Some think they can go bigger than the W-League.
If Gold Pride can’t survive to make it another year, that’s regrettable. If the Washington Freedom let a decade of history and youth development go to waste for want of one escrow payment, that’s unfathomable.
This region has plenty of money. Surely someone is willing to risk a relatively small amount of it on something that’s already valuable.
Update: Andy Mead was kind enough to pass along the new USL logos, in which the W-League is branded as “pro-am.”
Clarification: There is, as I suggested on Twitter last night, a difference between the Freedom folding the entire operation and withdrawing from WPS. They could give up on WPS now and revert to the W-League, which I’m sure would be happy to have them. I’m not sure that’s the best course of action — they’d surely have to give up Abby Wambach, for one thing — but it’s certainly better than folding up completely.