Pro Women's Soccer '12: National No-Shows, Refugee Players and an Ad-Hoc League

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Pro Women's Soccer '12: National No-Shows, Refugee Players and an Ad-Hoc League
Michelle Wenino of the Chicago Red Stars pictured here in inaugural WPS play. Wenino did not make the Red Stars club in season two but returned to play for the Red Stars after their relegation.

Believe it or not, at the beginning of 2012, Women's Professional Soccer still existed. A draft was held. Permission was obtained from U.S. Soccer Federation to hold a season with only five clubs. Expansion plans were proceeding. A collective bargaining agreement was on the agenda.

And then, less than a month after the draft, the plug was pulled.

It came first as an announcement that the 2012 season would be suspended due to problems with a lawsuit brought by Dan Borislow. He sought damages after his magicJack franchise was dissolved due to his own non-compliance with league rules.

It wasn't long after that another announcement came. A settlement with Borislow was reached.

The wound he left was a mortal one. The second incarnation of a major league for women's soccer in America was dead and buried after just three seasons.

Flash forward to July 28, 2012, to Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester. It's a time warp, a parallel universe, reality in flux.

A defunct WPS franchise, the Chicago Red Stars, who had relegated themselves to the WPSL after two years in the majors, found themselves back in the big leagues by default. They were playing for the championship of an ad-hoc "Elite Division" of the WPSL against last year's WPS champions, the Western New York Flash.

The Elite division had been formed as a temporary one-year solution after the demise of WPS. It was comprised of four former WPS clubs (if you count Chicago and the New York Fury, which was mostly made up of former players from the Philadelphia Independence and coached by Philly's two-time WPS Coach of the Year Paul Riley).

Flash 2012 is a far cry from last year's championship club with the likes of Marta, Canadian star Christine Sinclair, Swede Caroline Seger and New Zealander Ali Riley, pictured above.

To meet the USSF minimum, the division added four of the best teams from the WPSL: FC Indiana, ASA. Chesapeake Charge, The New England Mutiny and the Philadelphia Fever. 

Throughout the season, it had been a tale of two leagues. The former WPS clubs, including the surprising Chicago Red Stars, one-year removed from WPS play, faced no competition from their junior counterparts. 

It was no surprise that the WPS clubs finished in the top four. In fact, the surprise of the season was that last year's champions, the Flash, struggled for a while before finally finishing second, and the Red Stars led the league for the first five games.

Chicago was also the first club to beat the eventual regular-season champion, the Boston Breakers. Chicago then faded, but managed to secure the final (fourth) playoff berth while also winning the U.S. Open Cup.

In the semifinals on July 25th, Western New York had to come back from a 1-0 deficit late in the game to a final 2-1 victory over New York (aka Philadelphia) to squeak into the championship match.

Chicago, on the other hand, completely dominated first-place Boston, winning 3-1 and setting up an opportunity to win a post-WPS Championship over the best of the defunct league.

This year's bland black on white Flash kits are symbolic of the downgraded team, but one bright spot of the 2012 squad was team captain McCall Zerboni, who was largely responsible for igniting WNY's success.

Western New York, while as good on paper as any of the Elite division teams, had a soft start. Then, after playing strong most of the rest of the season, they looked flat in a 1-0 loss to Boston in the season finale.

A win would have clinched first place. The loss put them at second seed.

They continued to look flat for the first half of their semifinal against New York, falling behind 1-0 in the eighth minute and unable to mount a good attack.

Late in that match, the Flash's superior conditioning began to pay off, and while the Fury began to show increasing fatigue, the Flash began winning balls and dominating play. Still, it took them until the 78th minute to even the score, but only two more minutes to take a lead they would not relinquish.

In Saturday's final, the Flash looked flat again. Chicago scored in the 40th minute and their defense continued to frustrate well into stoppage time.

Then, in the sixth minute of six minutes added, only seconds away from the final whistle, Flash defender Toni Pressley came out of nowhere and knocked a volley past the cross bar and hard into the top of the netting before it bounced down hard to the ground and up again, leveling the score.

Two periods of overtime were played in defensive equilibrium without much offense, and then the Flash prevailed in penalty kicks, just as they had a year earlier against Philadelphia.  

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The quality of play might have looked like last year's title match and the venue might have been the same, but it was otherwise obvious that this was not WPS.

The Flash would win their third title in their third league in three years, but whereas last year's WPS title was won in front of more than 10,000, the attendance this year fell short of 2,000.

Definitely a parallel universe. A time warp. An alternate reality.

But it wasn't just a story of teams in exile. It was a story of refugee players.

Ella Masar, an original Chicago Red Star, spent last season with no less than eight other former Red Stars on the ill-fated magicJack club, advancing to the semifinals before losing to Philadelphia.

Nicki Krzysik, another original Red Star, had played the past two years for Philly, making and losing the WPS championship game both years. Last year, the loss was a heart-breaker right here in Sahlen's Stadium against Western New York.

Krzysik, her many Philly teammates and coach Paul Riley had to suffer a late-game loss again to the Flash as the New York Fury. Masar died the same death three days later with her new/old team, Chicago, in the same manner it lost last year—penalty kicks.

Julianne Sitch, originally with Sky Blue FC (WPS New York/New Jersey club) spent a season in Chicago and then part of a season with the Flash last year before moving on to Atlanta.

She is now back in Chicago. 

Michelle Wenino showed promise as a rookie defender for the Red Stars in their inaugural WPS year, but did not make the club in year two. She returned to Chicago to play for their WPSL squad in 2011 and was a major force on the 2012 squad, truly playing up to WPS standards.

Other original Red Stars are still on the club, having gone down (and back up) with them, including Michele Weissenhofer and Irish international Mary Therese McDonnell.

It was just another year for the bottom tier of the elite division, who probably didn't mind losing so much in order to play with the majors for a year. They can go back to life as usual in the WPSL next year, but it was another fall into the abyss for the former WPS players. 

Currently, according to Flash owner Joe Sahlen, there are no solid plans to continue the WPSL Elite for another season and no plans to form a new league. There have been meetings between former WPS owners and the USSF, but nothing has been decided, not even a firm proposal to consider as of yet.

Sahlen has made it clear he will field a Flash club in whatever league is available at the highest level.

Coach Lisa Cole of the Boston Breakers says the Breakers will be back next year in some form in whatever league is considered "the top," but what that league will be, nobody knows.

According to Ella Masar, the Chicago ownership has assured their players that the Red Stars will be back and will be a part of whatever the best league is from now on. But again, there is no sense of what that will be.

Paul Riley says we need a new business model. We need 20 teams with an Eastern Division and a Western Division. He says some of the owners want to try and run a league on a budget of $250K per team.

"You can't do it for that," he says, "and make it worth watching."

He also says you can't do it with Marta (the Brazilian international who has won the FIFA Woman Player of the Year Award five of the past six years). "We can't afford to pay Marta a half million a year when we have great young American players coming up who need to be developed, only getting $25 thousand. I think we could do it on a $600K budget per team," Riley says.

But is anyone listening to him? 

It could be said that the hasty organization of WPSL Elite was a victory for pro soccer in America this year. The quality of play was good—"almost as good as WPS but with less depth," Riley says.

But the national team players largely boycotted club play this year in order to focus on the Olympics. Even those who signed with club teams, such as Lori Lindsey and Meghan Klingenberg of the Flash, barely played locally due to national team obligations.

They might as well have not even signed.

Will there be insufficient time to organize a new league between seasons? Will WPSL be a refugee camp for another year for the major clubs and players? We'll let you know as soon as we know.

John Howell is an analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.

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