The National Women's Soccer League—the third attempt at a professional women's soccer league in the U.S.—opens up its first season tomorrow.
Following the folding of the two previous leagues in three seasons each—the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) from 2001-2003 and Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) from 2009-2011—women's soccer proponents are hoping to avoid a hat trick of failure.
The new league features eight teams, five of which existed in one or both of the previous leagues.
But the big question is: How will this incarnation be different?
The new league has already taken two giant steps towards potential success. First, it's secured backing and support from soccer federations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Second, it's chosen the right soccer markets.
Aside from pursuing smaller stadiums and lower game-day operations costs, the bulk of cost-cutting will come by way of U.S. Soccer. The federation will be running the front office of the league in addition to funding the participation of 24 national team players.
Canada and Mexico are each funding 16 of their national team players.
This initiative will not only ensure that national team players are paid deserving salaries, but most importantly, it'll lift the burden of big contracts for the big-name stars. While most WPS player salaries were pathetic and hardly sustainable—often falling under $30,000—Brazilian superstar Marta required $500,000 alone (ironically still just above a quarter of the average NFL salary).
It was an unlikely coincidence when both WPS Los Angeles and Bay Area teams folded immediately after having Marta lead their charge. Los Angeles, who was also hosting games at the giant Home Depot Center, won a regular-season title in its last year as a club and the Bay Area won a league championship with the female Pele.
But glory was short-lived. This league will lack some of the bigger International stars like Marta, but U.S. National Team favorites like Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan will be able to play without burdening their respective teams.
The eight women's soccer markets are Chicago, Boston, Portland, Seattle, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Kansas City and Rochester. And by the looks of it, it's a strong starting roster.
The last teams standing in the WPS included Boston (also in the WUSA), New Jersey and Rochester. The Chicago team left the league after two seasons, while the Washington D.C. franchise (another WUSA vet) changed ownership, relocated to Florida and became the center of a legal scandal that was the final kick in the league's imminent death. Rest assured however, that the revived Washington Freedom franchise has declared independence from all of that.
But the league couldn't have chosen three better new additions, all of which host popular Major League Soccer counterparts. The Pacific Northwest, especially, is not just well-known to house the two most passionate MLS fanbases, but it also sports the most heated rivalry in American soccer, dating back to the 1970s and the days of the North American Soccer League.
The Seattle Sounders have led the MLS in attendance for the past four years. And then there's the Portland Timbers, whose only real competition is the Trail Blazers, so you can understand why soccer has thrived so well, especially with a rival just over the state border.
Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers, is an investor for the new franchise. All one has to do is look at the WNBA—which would have serious trouble existing without the generous backing of the NBA—to realized that even the smallest MLS involvement is pivotal. That, coupled with the backing of the soccer federations, could very well be the missing link to solving the so-far impossible U.S. women's soccer puzzle.
The league has pulled off a quick, four-month turnaround to the season opener, and the outlook is undeniably brighter than a year ago. But the most important factor in the new league's success could prove fatal once more: Do enough Americans care about women's soccer to sell tickets?
Check back in another three years.
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