Women soccer pros face uncertain future

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. The first e-mail came from an elementary school student putting together a petition to save the WUSA.

The next was from a teenager who was going to hand out fliers supporting the league that folded Monday.

And there was one from a mother who said her daughter ''was heartbroken'' because ''kids love the league.''

Julie Foudy just stared ahead as she described the correspondences she received from all over the country about the WUSA. It was as if a friend had died.

But, Foudy vowed, the league is not dead yet. Her teammates on the U.S. national team preparing for the Women's World Cup opener this weekend also chose the optimistic approach.

''This league was an empowering experience for them,'' Foudy said, referring to the young fans attracted to the WUSA after the phenomenal success of the 1999 World Cup. ''We're hopeful that reaction strikes a chord with some people people that have a lot of money.

''You shake your head when people say TV ratings are not there or that the fans are down. There's hundreds of millions of dollars going to one athlete, and here we have $2 million can save a league.

''Nobody was willing to take that leap of faith. But we can get there.''

While Foudy and other U.S. team veterans believe some aggressive campaigning in the business community will uncover investors and sponsors to revive the WUSA, they also understand the challenge ahead. Soccer might be the world's most popular sport in a landslide, but it remains a tough sell in the United States.

Selling women's soccer is even more difficult, despite the strides made in women's sports in recent years, sparked by Foudy and her colleagues.

''This league,'' said Brandi Chastain, one of the most recognizable female athletes in America, ''no one believed it would happen and these players took a chance to get it started. That's another block in the foundation of the character of this group.''

That group Foudy, Chastain, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett, Joy Fawcett dates to the very roots of women's international soccer in the late 1980s and early '90s. Those players, while saddened by the WUSA's failure, will not suffer most from its demise.

Instead, it will be the younger generation of Americans who will be damaged most. Players such as Aly Wagner, Angela Hucles, Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach used their superb play in the WUSA to get spots on the World Cup team.

Cindy Parlow, Kate Sobrero and Tiffany Roberts polished their impressive resumes with strong stints in the league.

Now, they and players like them won't have such a stage on which to display their talent.

''I guess it might be how it was for the veterans before,'' said Wagner, a 23-year-old midfielder considered the rising playmaker in U.S. soccer. ''Train on your own with people in the neighborhood, have a bunch of us move close together to train. But your growth rate stagnates like that.''

It will be even worse for foreign players whose homelands don't have the club and college soccer programs the United States boasts. During this World Cup, the play will be much better than four years ago precisely because the WUSA allowed women from Germany, Sweden, Canada, Japan and Brazil to hone their skills.

''We all got better from the league,'' Sobrero said. ''The coaching, the different systems, the players' quality it definitely made for great soccer.''

And what of the dozens of WUSA players not yet good enough for national team selection? With no college eligibility remaining, do they wind up in weaker leagues in Europe or Asia? Do they play in the semiprofessional American ranks?

''I don't think any of us are thinking like that because we still believe this league can work,'' Sobrero said. ''I'm happy for the experience of three years and I'm certainly hoping at some point to play in a pro league like that. We need it for the girls in this country; the more role models for them, the better.

''Every league at the beginning has had problems. It takes more than three years to be viable. I don't think people realized there was a problem and now it has been exposed.''

The American players feel the problem can be solved.

''The timing could work out for us,'' Wagner said. ''Here is the World Cup and our chance to show this is too important to let it die. We're making our plea.''

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