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Unsanctioned: U.S. Soccer Federation mulls decision that could make or break WPS

By Charles Boehm

A delegation from Women’s Professional Soccer has traveled to Chicago to make a very important presentation today, one that could determine the course of the women’s game in this country for years to come.

The embattled league’s leadership has arrived at the home base of U.S. Soccer to appear before the federation’s “Professional League Standards Task Force,” an entity tasked with deciding whether WPS deserves another exemption from the rules and regulations governing professional soccer leagues in the United States for the 2012 season.

U.S. Soccer lays out the requirements expected of a pro league in a concise document just over four pages in length, with a range of directives pertaining to size, scope, structure, budget and staffing. As with other countries around the world, the federation uses its criteria to evaluate the likes of WPS, Major League Soccer and the second-tier North American Soccer League before approving them as official competitions within the FIFA hierarchy.

At present, WPS does not meet those standards. After terminating its troublesome magicJack franchise (the relocated and rebranded version of the Washington Freedom) in October, the league now has five member clubs, well short of the eight required by U.S. Soccer “to apply” for sanctioning, and even further away from the 10-team minimum suggested for leagues “in year three.” WPS is entering its fourth year of play.

Further, all five teams (Boston, Western New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Atlanta) are located in the Eastern time zone, contravening another directive: “In the first year, U.S.-based teams must be located in at least two different time zones in the continental United States.”

U.S. Soccer can grant one-year waivers from these and other guidelines, which WPS has obtained to operate in previous years. This afternoon league officials are making their case for another waiver, having been given an additional 15 days “to determine the possibility of adding a sixth team” following their initial petition to the federation’s Board of Directors last month, in the words ofa statement sent by U.S. Soccer to Jenna Pel of the women’s soccer blog All White Kit.

WPS is eyeing long-term expansion opportunities in several markets and reportedly explored the option of fast-tracking one in time for 2012, but is not believed to have been successful in doing so.

“No matter if WPS comes back with six teams or only five, the waiver request will be reviewed by the Professional League Task Force,” U.S. Soccer spokesperson Neil Buethe told Potomac Soccer Wire via email. “The Task Force will then make a recommendation to the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors, who will then vote on whether to sanction the league with that amount of teams.”

Sanctioning matters because leagues without it are effectively unable to employ current or future national-team players, who risk being barred from FIFA competitions for life should they take part in unsanctioned events. As underlined by the major spike in WPS attendance and interest following the national team’s heroics at the Women’s World Cup last summer, U.S. internationals like Hope Solo and Abby Wambach are generally seen as the lifeblood of the league.

This introduction only hints at the deep complexity of the situation atop U.S. women’s soccer at the moment. U.S. Soccer wants the USWNT to be prepared for another gold-medal run in next summer’s Summer Olympics in London, assuming it qualifies for the tournament later this winter.

While WPS has provided a crucial proving ground for both new and established American talent, the federation has shown a disinclination to “prop up” the league and may call the national team into a spring residential camp as an alternative to or even replacement for WPS, which will certainly have to massage its schedule to co-exist with the Olympics either way. And the league’s ongoing legal battle with magicJack owner Dan Borislow, who filed suit in the wake of his club’s termination, presents another simmering problem in need of resolution.

Does the USWNT need WPS to ensure a place among the world’s elite, or can the national team stand on its own as a commercial and competitive entity? After the league survived internal feuding, economic head winds and other turmoil to reach this point – albeit at a stagger – would U.S. Soccer really deal it a fatal blow by denying accreditation just when signs of hope appeared on the horizon?

Or is the federation mulling a compromise? One suggestion reportedly being entertained is the entry of the U.S. National Team itself as the league’s sixth team for 2012, to promote WPS and USWNT alike during a pivotal summer for both.

Amid all its struggles, WPS has maintained the highest density of elite women’s talent in the world and last summer showed how it can benefit from widespread adoration for the current crop of U.S. stars. Players, fans and women’s sports advocates have led a groundswell of public support for the league in recent weeks, highlighted by an online New York Times column by young star Yael Averbuch, a popular twitter campaign tagged #savetheWPS and an online petition by Western New York president and player Alex Sahlen which garnered more than 45,000 signatures.

No announcement is expected from either side today – in fact, the situation probably won’t be publically resolved for weeks to come. But the fate of women’s pro soccer in the U.S. may be determined in a matter of hours.