What’s Next For America’s Female Soccer Players?

When the United States Women’s National Team kicks off its gold medal match against Japan tomorrow in London, it will mark the culmination of a year-long journey toward avenging its loss to Japan in last year’s World Cup final. The women’s team captured America’s heart last year before losing in heartbreaking fashion in Germany, and the run to the Olympics has been similarly dramatic — the U.S. defeat of Canada in the semifinal was hailed as one of the premier international matches in the sport’s history, and its systematic dismantling of the rest of its competition has been beautiful to watch.

Whether the U.S. avenges its World Cup defeat or falls short again, though, an uncertain and unfortunate future awaits the top American players. They will return next week to a United States that has no major professional soccer league after Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) folded earlier this year, meaning the game’s biggest stars — Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and others — will have no top-level soccer to play.

That’s a major problem, not just for the continuance of the American women’s dominance of soccer, but for the health of women’s soccer around the world. There are more than 337,000 American girls playing soccer on 10,500 high school teams alone; there are another 700 women’s college-level teams and hundreds of thousands more playing at levels below high school. The growth of women’s soccer around the world has followed the United States, where the USWNT remains one of the few fully-funded national teams. Brazilian star Marta played her professional games in the WPS, and even in soccer-mad countries across Europe, women have struggled until late to gain the same access to the game that they enjoy in the United States.

An America without women’s professional soccer, however, puts all of that in jeopardy. And there are plenty of reasons to worry about the future of women’s soccer: excitement about previous World Cup wins and mega-stars wasn’t sustained, and as popular as this rendition of the USWNT has been, there’s little evidence that American sports fans are ready to support a major women’s league. WPS drew just more than 3,500 fans per game in 2011, and its model — which included teams in six cities — proved unsustainable.

But there is good news, too: U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is committed to growing and sustaining a major women’s league in the U.S., as he told Sports Illustrated columnist Grant Wahl this week. “We’ve talked with club owners and teams that are in the USL and teams in the WPSL,” Gulati told Wahl, referring to two American semiprofessional leagues that still exist. “And we’ll see what we can figure out, not on how we get the right set-up started, but on how we get the right set-up sustainable. That’s more important. Whether that’s an existing set-up or some other set-up or a combination, I don’t know yet.”

There is also precedent for reviving a failed soccer league in America. Major League Soccer got off to a bumbling start in the 1990s, drawing small crowds and expanding to new cities far too fast. After downsizing and reorganizing, the league is now thriving in 19 cities and drawing bigger crowds than ever. And unlike a women’s league, MLS can’t boast that it features the world’s best players.

As Gulati told Wahl, growing a domestic women’s professional league is going to take time and patience. Like MLS, it will have to start small, placing teams in strategic cities where soccer is already popular and facilities already exist, and partnering with well-established MLS teams in Los Angeles, D.C., Seattle, and New York (as some semiprofessional women’s teams already do) could help the league off the ground. MLS was once left for dead, too, and it is now thriving. And regardless of the constraints, starting, sustaining, and growing a major women’s professional league is imperative. The world’s biggest stars need a place to play, and the millions of soccer-playing girls around the world who dream of repeating the heroics of women like Wambach, Morgan, and Rapinoe need proof that their sport doesn’t lead them to a dead end.