By Val Servino–
Last year, 23 collegiate athletes were brought into the fold of professional soccer via the annual Women’s Professional Soccer Draft on Jan. 13, 2012. No more than three weeks after the draft, league executives suspended play, leading to official closure in May of the same year. It was the second women’s soccer league in a decade to fold in its third season. This left a multitude of talented athletes without an outlet for success.
The league, held up by a loyal but small fan base, was unstable due to its marketing strategies and was also financially unsound. The new National Women’s Soccer League, NWSL, hopes to circumvent these issues by allowing for the U.S. Soccer Federation to handle all front office matters and by expanding its market to the west coast.
Without the presence of a professional women’s league, the growth of the game was stunted, as well as all those whose dreams were tied to it. After less than a year without a professional-level league, U.S. Soccer announced the development of the NWSL, with the help of the Canadian Soccer Association and Mexican Football Federation. The new league is comprised of eight teams in three different time zones, in compliance with U.S. Soccer Federation regulations – one of the main reasons for the cancellation of Women’s Professional Soccer, which had only six teams in one time zone by its last season.
Rachel Melhado, a defender for the University of Louisville women’s soccer team, has been playing the game since she was six years old. Now a junior in college, Melhado looks to the formation of the NWSL as “something to strive toward.”
The Canadian-born player has international experience and as such, watched professional women’s soccer in support of friends and former teammates; she plans to do the same with the development of the new league.
“I love the fact that we have this league available,” Melhado said. “Women are very underappreciated when it comes to sports in comparison to men.”
Rachel Melhado and her teammate, junior forward Charlyn Corral, agreed that in spite of the uncertain future of women’s soccer in America, they would want to play in the new league if drafted after college.
Corral, a member of the Mexican Women’s National Team, has played one full season at U of L after transferring from Tecnológico de Monterrey in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. She noted the elite level of the sport in the United States, both at the collegiate and professional level in comparison to the rest of the world.
“I think the league will grow,” Corral revealed, “especially if there is more organization.”
Chelsea Hunter, a junior defender on the U of L women’s soccer team, was unsure whether she would want to play overseas or in the new league.
“With the track record of past leagues in the United States,” Hunter explained, “either one would be a risk. Overseas you would have to learn a new language, adapt to a foreign environment, and you’re far away from home. But the NWSL may still be unstable. There are no guarantees, especially with something that isn’t dominant in the U.S.”
Concerns are still present, however, regarding the marketability of the new women’s league. Without teams to represent the Mexican and Canadian federations, which make the league possible, fans could become restless.
Rachel Melhado believes that it will make it harder for non-American fans to stay connected, as it is difficult to travel the long distances to games.
In the days of the former professional women’s soccer league in the U.S., Melhado had issues with watching games on television. This problem, however, rings true for all women’s soccer fans, regardless of their nationality, as many games are not televised and can only be found live-streamed on the Internet, if at all.
Charlyn Corral and Chelsea Hunter do not think that the team’s locations will affect the success of the league. Corral believes that dedicated fans will attend games regardless of distance in order to support their team. Hunter stated that she did not “think it would be detrimental to the league, but there are definitely ways to help keep it successful, like adding a couple of teams located in Canada and Mexico.”
On a hopeful note, Hunter added, “If the MLS can be successful for so long, why can’t there be a women’s league that is successful?”
This question has remained unanswered for nearly a decade, and as a result, in the past many talented athletes have sought contracts with European clubs.
Ali Krieger, a right back who just returned to the U.S. Women’s National Team after a knee injury in Olympic Qualifiers, will be playing for the Washington Spirit in the upcoming season of the NWSL. This is her first long-term contract with an American club, having previously only played in Germany’s Frauen Bundesliga with FFC Frankfurt.
Krieger, a star in her own right as the player who scored the game-winning penalty kick against Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal, has a strong fan base, especially among young American soccer players. In particular, U of L center back Chelsea Hunter looks to Krieger as a role model and fellow defender.
As a forward, Corral looks to forward and five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta Vieira da Silva, known simply as Marta. The Brazilian star played three seasons with Women’s Professional Soccer, and after the devolution of the league, signed a contract with Tyresö FF in Sweden.
Corral also looks to players on the Women’s World Cup Champion and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Japanese Women’s National Team to help shape her game. In praise of the team, the Mexican international said if there were any other teams or countries she could represent, it would be Japan.
The clubs are follows: Washington Spirit, Seattle Reign FC, Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC, FC Kansas City, Western New York Flash and Portland Thorns FC. Each team was allocated its share of 55 total players, injuries and other absences aside. The College Draft added another 32 players, with Zakiya Bywaters, a forward out of UCLA as the first pick to the Red Stars.
The Supplemental Draft then added 45 free agents to the league, including players Stephanie Ochs, Lindsay Tarpley and Nikki Krzysik.
The regular season will begin with a matchup between FC Kansas City and Portland FC on April 13 in Overland Park, Ks.
Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal