Armed with a better business plan, a women's professional soccer league will soon be up and running again in the United States.
It has been a couple of years since Women's Professional Soccer began to crumble, lost membership and ceased operations. The bad economy didn't help, but unsustainable expenses were the biggest culprit, and owners, including the group that started the Chicago Red Stars, waved the white flag.
But the surrender didn't last long. Some of those same WPS owners, along with a few new ones, are ready to try again. They believe they have a formula that will work.
"No one is in this because they think they're going to get rich," said Rory Dames, a local youth soccer club owner who also is the new head coach of the Red Stars. "They've always done it for the right reasons -- to grow women's soccer. But at least now, they've got a much better business plan."
The owners started by forming a new league, the National Women's Soccer League. It will begin play this spring with eight teams, including the Red Stars and other former WPS teams such as Boston, New York, New Jersey and Washington. The business model includes smaller, more affordable venues, lower salary caps and a big helping hand from three of the biggest soccer federations in the world.
To attract some of the best players in the world, the NWSL has teamed with soccer federations from the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will fully subsidize the NWSL salaries and benefits for their own national team players. That dispersal of 55 players: 23 from the United States and 16 each from Mexico and Canada, was announced Friday (see related story), with the Red Stars landing former Notre Dame midfielder Shannon Boxx and U.S. defender Amy LePeilbet of Crystal Lake.
"When you've got multiple national governing bodies involved, you've got to feel good about your league's chances to succeed," Dames said. "It's also a great situation for the federations. To have their best players competing in a professional environment is very beneficial to them. You've got the World Cup coming up in Canada, and normally national teams would have to fly their players in from time to time for camps in order to train.
"Now, those players can play day in and day out in the pro league and be placed with coaches and players that will best help in their own personal development."
On Jan. 18, the league will hold its college draft, and it's possible Dames will know some players in the pool quite well. A high school star at St. Viator in the early 1990s, he has been coaching youth soccer in the Chicago area since his collegiate career at St. Louis University. His Eclipse Select club is based in Oak Brook and has clubs all over the area, and in Wisconsin and Northwest Indiana.
For the last eight years, his girls program has been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the country, and some of his players have gone on to play high-level college soccer and beyond.
A few years ago when laid-off WPS players were looking for new places to play, a semipro league popped up and Dames entered a team with some of his best older club players. That's how he met some of the WPS movers and shakers, including Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler.
"He was trying to keep something associated with the Red Stars brand alive in Chicago and he was looking for more players and I had players," Dames said. "I told him I would bring in some players and I would coach the team if he wanted to fund the team. We've been working together for the last two years."
When the NWSL was formed, Whisler knew who he wanted as his head coach.
"I had honestly never really thought very much about being a pro coach," Dames said. "I have my own business, which is going very well, and I'm pretty busy with that and it makes me happy.
"But in getting to know Arnim, I really got to respect what he's trying to do for women's soccer in this area and I wanted to help."
The Red Stars have talked about playing their games at multiple locations around the Chicago area in order to engage different pockets of fans. Smaller venues at colleges such as Benedictine and Northwestern have been discussed. In the previous league, the Red Stars played at Toyota Park, which was expensive to rent and difficult to fill.
"Our top priority will be that grass-roots building of the team through our players," Dames said. "They will be accessible and out in the community interacting with fans. I think that was one of the problems with the previous league."
The Red Stars will open their 22-game schedule in mid-April and run through August. For more information, visit chicagoredstars.net.
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