On 29 March, the Los Angeles Sol and Marta, three-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, take on the Washington Freedom in the inaugural match of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), the new women's professional soccer league in North America. WPS seeks to be the premier women's soccer league in the world and the global standard by which women's professional sports are measured.
There are seven teams for the 2009 season and several expansion teams planned for 2010, with the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, FC Gold Pride (Northern California), Sky Blue FC (New Jersey/New York) and Saint Louis Athletica kicking off their regular season the first weekend in April. The US Women's National Team currently sit atop the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking and its players are a key part of WPS, but the league will also feature top players from nearly a dozen nations, drawn by a critical mass of global talent.
Two-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004, said: "What is so wonderful about the WPS is the parity that is seen in both the US player allocation, as well as the international ones. You will have the strengths of different players from all over the world displaying their skills on the field every week. When you see names like [Kristine] Lilly, [Abby] Wambach, Marta, and [Kelly] Smith, a fan can only get excited to see to see these players compete."
"First and foremost, I'm coming to a team that has a goal of nothing less than winning championships," said Marta, on the appeal of joining WPS. "The best players in the world are here in the US. and I didn't want to be considered outside of that group."
Armed with a realistic strategy, top players and committed partners and investors, WPS has no intention of suffering the same fate as the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), which folded in 2003. The league is mindful of current economic challenges, has a strong cash position, and additional revenue streams, such as nationwide camps, that it feels will help it get through year one successfully. On the eve of the inaugural season, the players are energized by the launch of the league.
"It's a new challenge for me," said Kelly Smith of the Boston Breakers. "The team is really coming together and we're just working hard to be the best we can be. I'm excited and looking forward to every game."
"I'm so relieved that it's here," said Cat Whitehill of the Washington Freedom. "I've been fortunate to play with the U.S. Women's National Team, but now we get to play a lot of games in a row without having to go overseas just to get a game in. I'm just thrilled."
The players have experienced a lot of uncertainty since the demise of the WUSA, struggling to maintain their hope that a professional women's league would soon return. "We were hoping for it to come back sooner than it did," said Whitehill. "But the nice thing is that it has been six years, which has provided ample time to figure out what we did wrong in the previous league and what to do right in this league."
Nicci Wright, a former WUSA goalkeeper who is now a goalkeeper coach at a WPS team, added: "For the first couple of years, I thought the league would be back for sure. But for five years, we just kept hearing ‘next year, next year.' When I heard the league was really going to happen, I thought it was great, just a little too late for some," she smiled.
Expectations are high regarding the level of play in WPS. And looking ahead to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Germany™, there is a sense that the existence of WPS will positively impact that competition. "WPS will allow the domestic players to play in a competitive environment everyday," said Hamm. "It will ask the most out of all of them and players will be asked to take on different roles than they may have had in other environments. I believe the players competing in the WPS will be stronger and better prepared going into the World Cup."
"What you could see in 2003 [at the time of the WUSA] was that a different player pool came to us," said Hope Solo of Saint Louis Athletica. "I have a feeling that [because of WPS] we are going to find a few gems that we wouldn't have known about otherwise." Marta added: "I think that [the existence of the league] will be very important, especially for players from my national team, to have the opportunity to play years of games at a very high level."
WPS players are hopeful that their world class product will find a following. "Watch us, watch us more than once. And watch us with an open mind because the women's game is just as beautiful," said Whitehill. "We love the game and you're going to see a certain passion. It's going to be exciting and if you let yourself let it be exciting, you'll be pleasantly surprised." WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci added: "Now it's time to show the fans what they want to see; world class football played by the world's best players."