If you do not know much about the National Women’s Soccer League (“NWSL”) or the Houston Dash, you are not alone. In the lead up to the inaugural match for the Dash this Saturday against the Portland Thorns, House of Houston will be providing an overview of the league, the team and spotlighting several players to help fans new to the sport and the team get up to speed.
In this article, we provide a background on top flight professional women’s soccer in the United States as a prelude to looking at the NWSL itself.
The NWSL is the latest incarnation of top flight women’s soccer in the United States, following on the now defunct Women’s United Soccer Association (“WUSA”) and Women’s Professional Soccer (“WPS”).
Going into the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the United States, the top flight of women’s soccer consisted of the W-League and the Women’s Premier Soccer League (“WPSL”). The W-League was founded in 1995 while WPSL, originally the Western Division of the W-League before breaking away, was founded in 1997.
Both the W-League and WPSL consisted of a blend of professional and amateur sides. In the aftermath of the hugely successful 1999 World Cup, which made household names of players like Mia Hamm and Bradi Chastain, twenty US Women’s National Team players saw an opportunity to establish the first fully professional women’s soccer league and entered into partnership with a number of individual and corporate investors.
As a result of their efforts, the Women’s United Soccer Association (“WUSA”) was born and began play on April 14, 2001. The league consisted of 6 teams: Atlanta Beat, Bay Area CyberRays, New York Power, Philadelphia Charge, San Diego Spirit, Boston Breakers, Washington Freedom and Carolina Courage.
Unfortunately, by the time 2001 rolled around, the euphoria and public interest spawned by the 1999 World Cup had faded and neither TV ratings nor attendance hit the levels anticipated. After three seasons the league had burned through its initial $40 million budget, which was planned to last 5 years. As a result, the league suspended operations on September 15, 2003.
WUSA players went to WPSL and the W-League or overseas while efforts were made to keep the WUSA name alive and sustain some interest in women’s professional soccer. In the end, WUSA was reported to have lost in the neighborhood of $100 million.
In 2006, the Women’s Soccer Initiative, Inc. (“WSII”) announced the re-launch of WUSA for the 2008 season consisting of teams in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Washington DC and an unnamed city.
The launch date was later pushed back to 2009 to avoid conflicts with the 2007 Women’s World Cup and 2008 Olympic Games. Boston and New York/New Jersey were added as teams, as was a Bay Area team. Meanwhile, the Dallas franchise fell out.
On January 17th, 2008 the league name was announced as the WPS. Play started on March 29th, 2009 with 7 teams (Los Angeles Sol, Saint Louis Athletica, Washington Freedom, Sky Blue FC (New York/New Jersey), Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars and FC Gold Pride (the Bay Area)). National team players were allocated to the teams (3 per team), an international draft took place, a general draft and finally a college draft.
The league struggled again with sponsorship and attendance. In 2010, expansion franchises were added to Philadelphia and Atlanta while the Los Angeles and St. Louis franchises folded. The 2010 Champions, FC Gold Pride folded prior to the start of the 2011 season as did the Chicago Red Stars.
The Washington Freedom were purchased, renamed “magicJack” and moved to Boca Raton for the 2011 season. The Western New York Flash playing in Rochester, New York joined the league that same season.
Attendance got a boost from the success of the US Women’s National Team at the 2011 World Cup which created new interest in establishing WPS franchises. However, in late 2011 the league was forced to terminate the magicJack franchise taking the total number of active franchises down to five.
The US Soccer Federation gave WPS 15 days to field a sixth team in order to maintain top flight status, then later provided a conditional extension through 2014. Nevertheless, in early 2012 the league folded due to a combination of internal organization issues, an ongoing legal battle with Don Borislow (owner of the magicJack franchise) and a lack of financial resources.
It was only a short period of time before a stronger professional women’s league would return in the form of the NWSL. Tomorrow we will cover the beginning of the NWSL and the results of the first season.