Posted by: Ethan Johnson | May 30, 2010

WPS: After the Athletica

I have taken some time to digest the news that the St Louis Athletica ceased operations this past week, and have some thoughts to share.

First and foremost, I was reminded as to why I dutifully record DVD copies of the WPS Game of the Week on Fox Soccer Channel (FSC). I want a tangible reminder that this happened. Yes Virginia, there really was (another) women’s pro soccer league, and it really was loaded with international talent.

Sadly for St Louis, it was not aided by a particularly committed ownership group. If I were still receiving emails from them, I am sure some sort of spin-filled screed went out defending their decision and claiming to be committed to professional soccer in St Louis. To which I reply, bull, and [poop].

Back in the early days of getting emails (solicited, at that, as I supported the concept) from St Louis Soccer United, I was regaled with stories about how St Louis had a rich soccer history and with the advent of Major League Soccer (MLS), a push would be made to be named as an expansion team as early as 2010. Seattle and Philadelphia were named as the most recent MLS expansion teams instead.

I didn’t realize that St Louis Soccer United owned the local WPS franchise because their emails never really talked about them. That is, not until AC St Louis came along. Having been spurned by MLS, the ownership group picked up a minor league team and invested heavily in getting the word out.

I can’t accuse St Louis Soccer United of not being invested in their WPS team outright, but will note that theuy have made it clear for some time now that MLS was the goal, and all else was “filler” while they made overtures to land an expansion team. What frosts me, and others, is that STLSU had pro soccer in St Louis, in the guise of the St Louis Athletica. They had Hope Solo, Lori Chalupny, and now Shannon Boxx with the dissolution of the L.A. Sol. Top tier international players like Kelly Smith and Marta came to town. WPS certainly has no shortage of world-class professional talent on their rosters. But sadly, as appears to be the case, the best women take a back seat to lower-division men.

This hurts WPS in that now, there are fewer roster spots across the fledgling league that must now be shuffled to accommodate another defunct team. This year saw the creation of two teams to offset the shutdown of the Sol, which helped distribute the talent across the league. Now it is back to seven teams and having to make a hard sell that they are a competitive pro league when 4 of 7 teams are guaranteed a playoff spot – and a bye week or two, depending on final positioning.

As noted elsewhere, this news really took the wind out of my sails. I don’t really care about the WPS Fantasy Challenge anymore. I do want to know where Hope Solo is going to end up, but beyond that it feels like this season is just going to fizzle out in a by-the-numbers yawn fest. I really want to be wrong about this. WPS Season One was exciting with only 7 teams, and I hope that the excitement can come back again and give WPS something to build on for Season Three. But as things stand tonight, this minute, as I type this while wearing my defunct St Louis Athletica t-shirt, I am afraid that my WPS DVD collection will end crisply with the finale of Season Two. And then the USA Women’s National Team will be the sole source for seeing our domestic heroes represent us in the various tournaments, such as the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Pia Sundhage, the USA coach, has said on numerous occasions that the WPS has been beneficial to see the USA players in all sorts of in-game situations, rather having to be shoehorned into a camp somewhere and evaluated more on raw ability and theory.

And WPS has been beneficial for people like me to get a look at international players that otherwise would escape notice for long periods of time, such as every 2 to 4 years. Germany is not participating in WPS – and probably feeling rather smug right now – which is denying us a chance to see players like Birgit Prinz unless the Olympics or the World Cup are at stake.

This debacle has also served as a reminder that I can’t save the league or any one team by myself. I was indeed a St Louis Athletica season ticket holder from the start, and have done what I can despite living out of market to provide financial and moral support to the team. And if it were possible to intervene and buy the team and save the season, I would, in a heartbeat. That’s why I write this blog and support women’s athletics in any way, shape or form. I am passionate about women’s athletics and hope that passion translates into support from others, and thus a solid foundation to build on.

Sadly, not everyone shares that passion, and worse, people own teams that they aren’t fully vested in.

WPS deserves better, and so do the people of St Louis. I hope someone can step forward and make the commitment to the St Louis Athletica and to women’s professional soccer across the United States.

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