A League of Their Own

On Sunday, the USA takes on Japan in the Women’s World Cup Final. It has been an entertaining tournament and is being followed in the US on a level similar to the famous 1999 World Cup win, not least because of the heroic quarter-final victory over Brazil. Sunday’s game also carries significance for the future of the domestic league – Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) – amid falling attendances and folding franchises, a US win could keep the league alive.

Soccer is a tough sell in America, especially Women’s Soccer. The 1999 World Cup win led to the first league incarnation – WUSA – which promptly folded after three seasons, reportedly losing over $100million. In 2009, the replacement WPS began playing and is now midway through its third season. It currently consists of six teams located up and down the East Coast, though ominously already has five defunct teams, including last year’s champions FC Gold Pride. Unlike many European women’s leagues, WPS players are on professional contracts, but with that commitment comes greater financial pressure to succeed. 2010 average attendances were down 23% on the 2009 inaugural season numbers and there are concerns over 2011 numbers.

The WPS has sent 36 players to the World Cup, including the Brazilian star Marta and no less than 20 of the 21 USA roster. A US win could give a welcome attendance bump to WPS teams, but it remains to be seen how long the World Cup afterglow might last. But at the very least, it would provide WPS an opportunity to reach out and engage new fans.

For the WPS to survive, break even and maybe even (shock!) make money, it has to develop relevance to the local, then national market. There are a lot of professional and semi-professional sports vying for fans’ attention and cash. The current WPS model leaves all advertising and community outreach to individual clubs, with mixed results. Two of the highest profile US players, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, play in Florida for magicJack – a team named after a cheap phone line gadget. The owner has been criticized by the league for showing little interest in the WPS, instead solely using the team name as advertising for his gizmo. This is not how to project local soccer relevance.

So finally to the game on Sunday. It should be an interesting match up between two differing styles. In my opinion, Japan has played the best football of the tournament and has perfected the strengths of the women’s game – a precise short-passing game combined with great movement. Every Japanese player seems to have an excellent touch and on-the-ball control, plus the team moves very well up and down the field together. They’re sort of a spin off version of Barcelona, with Homare Sawa pulling a lot of the strings.

By contrast, the US team plays a more direct, physical game, akin to many men’s teams. Shannon Boxx plays the midfield spoiler, while pace comes from Heather O’Reilly and Lauren Cheney. Crosses are inevitably aimed at Abby Wambach’s noggin, to pretty devastating effect (see Brazil and France games). However, Japan has shown they are willing to mix it up with the bigger girls (see the Germany and Sweden games), so it should make for an intriguing tactical game.

Win or lose, the US players will shortly return to these shores and their domestic teams. The WPS season continues through the end of August. Sunday’s result may dictate how many have to take up a second job as league saleswomen, in order to retain their primary occupations.

Saturday 16 July, 11:30am (EST) Sweden v France (3rd/4th place)

Sunday 17 July, 2:45pm (EST) USA v Japan (Final)

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