While MLS has in the last few years reached a level of stability that will hopefully give us a break from our perennial worrying about "the future of the game", the women's pro game is still struggling for survival in this country. The Women's National Team is currently preparing for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament this month and the roster is officially listed as:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Nicole Barnhart (out of contract), Hope Solo (out of contract)
DEFENDERS (7): Rachel Buehler (Atlanta Beat), Ali Krieger (FFC Frankfurt), Amy LePeilbet (Atlanta Beat), Heather Mitts (out of contract), Kelley O’Hara (Atlanta Beat), Christie Rampone (out of contract), Becky Sauerbrunn (Sky Blue FC)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Shannon Boxx (out of contract), Tobin Heath (out of contract), Lori Lindsey (Western New York Flash), Carli Lloyd (Atlanta Beat), Heather O’Reilly (Boston Breakers), Megan Rapinoe (out of contract), Amy Rodriguez (out of contract)
FORWARDS (4): Lauren Cheney (out of contract), Sydney Leroux (Atlanta beat), Alex Morgan (Western New York Flash), Abby Wambach (out of contract)
That's 10 players out of 20 who don't currently have a club team, which is remarkable for a country that has dominated the sport internationally for decades. Much of it is due to the forced contraction from WPS of the magicJack franchise, which finally collapsed under the weight of the sort of batty, megalomaniacal owner that sports franchises too often attract (you can find a good summary here of Dan Borislow's unfortunate reign over some of our most talented female players).
That loss brought the once-national league down to five teams, well below the US Soccer Federation's minimum standard of 8 teams for a sanctioned league. WPS had received waivers for years to play as a sactioned 6-team league, but evidently 5 was stretching it a bit too much and it took a significant public relations campaign and evidently a handful of promises to get US Soccer to conditionally sanction the league for another season.
But for us the in the Northwest, the plight of WPS is a distant concern. After the losses of franchises in California, St Louis, and Chicago over the last couple of seasons, the league is now strictly an Atlantic Coast regional league, with the westernmost franchise being the Western New York Flash (featuring honorary Sounder Alex Morgan).
Instead, our top league is the USL's W-League, where the Sounders Women play. When the (male) Sounders were still in USL-1, the relationship was closer, though there was never the sort of close coordination that the name would imply and that you see, for example, with the Vancouver Whitecaps women, who are part of the same club as the men. And once the Sounders moved up to MLS, any tenuous relationship was forgotten. The Sounders Women are now operated by the Tacoma Tide organization, who also run the Tide PDL team.
Soccer is a rarity in professional sports in that the women are recognizably playing the same game as the men. There is no analogue for American football (please don't bring up Lingerie Football) and rather than baseball, women are encouraged to play the (presumably more gentle) softball. We do have women's professional basketball, but the physical requirements and rigors of the men's game are so extreme that the women's game is fundamentally a different, slower-paced product than the above-the-rim, dunk-fueled version of basketball played in the NBA. But if you've ever watched the USWNT play or seen a WPS or women's college game, you immediately recognize that it's the same game as the men play. The same movement, the same crosses, the same passes, fouls, saves, and so on. I won't deny that at the very top end we don't have any female players that can compare with Lionel Messi or any team of women that could currently match Barcelona, but nevertheless the game is recognizable. In that sense, it's like tennis, where women are obviously playing the same tennis that the men are playing despite the generally slower shots and serves. And I don't think it's a coincidence that women's tennis has thrived over the years. There's no lack of female fans at Sounders games, young and old, and when they see the play on the field they are every bit as justified in thinking 'I can do that' as Seattle's male fans.
While I encourage our readers to head down to Starfire this season to watch the Sounders Women play (season starts May 20), I think it's fair to say that our region deserves the top level of women's soccer. There's no reason that Washington-born, Huskies legend, and Sounders fan Hope Solo should be (out of contract) rather than playing for at least a semi-pro team in Seattle. If travel costs prevent a true national pro women's league from existing, then why not two regional pro leagues (with a championship game between them)?
One important step towards making that a reality would be an investment by the Sounders in the Sounders Women organization. Even a minimal investment by the MLS club could be a huge boost for the Sounders Women. Just an occasional e-mail blast and ticket offer to the Seattle's massive season ticket holder base should be worth at least a few hundred butts in the seats, which would be a big boost to a club that averaged 543 per game last season.
There are some hints that that relationship could be developing. In December, Amy Carnell — who is the Director of Youth Programs for Sounders FC — was hired as the new GM for the Sounders Women and evidently will work in both capacities concurrently. Also, Don Ruiz at the Tacoma News Tribune reported today that the Sounders are looking to develop a relationship with the Tide as a PDL affiliate. Given that the Tide operate the Sounders Women, they would likely benefit from that relationship as well.
With the Sounders and Whitecaps on board, the Timbers couldn't be far behind. Portland is a city and an organization that prides itself on progressive values and just hosted the USWNT for a series of matches in September. A solid core of three successful MLS clubs in Cascadia operating women's teams could and should be enough of a catalyst to create a professional league in this region, which is something that the USWNT deserves, our local female players deserve, and Sounders fans deserve.