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Professional Oct 21, 2011

After turbulent 2011, Philly coach Paul Riley predicts brighter future for WPS

By Charles Boehm

It was another chaotic year for Women’s Professional Soccer, the beleaguered league which has teetered on the brink of extinction for much of its three years of existence. But one of the league’s most outspoken personalities predicted a much different future for WPS in an exclusive conversation with Potomac Soccer Wire earlier this month.

Paul Riley spends half the calendar year coaching the Philadelphia Independence, the 2010 WPS expansion club which has built a decent fan base and reached the league championship game in both years of its existence, and the other half serving as director of coaching at Albertson Soccer Club, a highly successful youth club based on Long Island, New York. PSW caught up with Riley at the Rael Vodicka Washington Area Girls Soccer (WAGS) Tournament in Northern Virginia, where he was coaching Albertson’s Fury 94 Premier squad in the event’s Under-17 Girls bracket.

The WPS front office has been quiet since the close of the season in August, and many observers continue to wonder if the league will even survive to execute the 2012 campaign. But the genial Englishman explained that all six existing clubs – even Dan Borislow’s controversial magicJack side – have signed on for another year and will be joined by an expansion team in Connecticut.

“Yes, done deal – six teams in, Connecticut looks like they’ll be in too,” said Riley. “They’ve got to sign a letter of intent, I think by November 1, to come in. But they look like they’re in. All six [existing] teams have committed, the schedule is done. So right now there’s no pulling out for anybody, as far as I know – everybody made the commitment, there was an owners’ meeting two weeks ago. I’m excited to do it again.”

A year ago WPS was bleeding badly, having lost franchises in Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Francisco and Chicago, and the Washington Freedom needed to find a buyer in order to avoid the same fate. Borislow stepped up and moved the Freedom to South Florida, renaming them after his signature telecommunications product and setting off a litany of conflicts and controversies. At one point Borislow and the league even engaged in legal jousting over the club’s fate, but he has decided to stay the course now that his nemesis, former WPS CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas, has stepped down.

“This was the year we had to get through. I felt that this was the big year, year three – all the magicJack problems, the problems with losing St. Louis and losing some other clubs,” said Riley, who foresees a big boost for WPS from the women’s soccer competition in next year’s Summer Olympics in London.

“We’ve got these six teams through thick and thin already, and I thought it was a great year, [with] big crowds because of the [FIFA Women’s] World Cup. We’ve got the back of the Olympics this year – I said to lose the league this year would be the daftest thing ever, because you’ve still got people buzzing about the World Cup. You’ve got the Olympics coming up, [the players] are going to be the sweethearts again going into the Olympics, and you’re going to [throw] it away now?”

Riley went on to sketch out a vision of a healthy league growing out of the relentless crises of the recent past, one which could be more than twice its current size if plans for a western expansion reach fruition.

“The West Coast, I think the seven teams have got to sign their letter of intent by November 1, to get the West Coast league to start in 2013,” he said, citing a number of possible locales in California in addition to the well-established soccer hotbeds in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland which have recently welcomed Major League Soccer with open arms.

“If you can announce straight after the Olympics, ‘We’ve got a 16-team league for next year,’ bang, we’re off and running… I think at least four or five [West Coast markets] will definitely have their acts together.”

Just as intriguing: Riley hopes to spearhead a 2013 WPS expansion club on Long Island, growing out of his own youth club, which already fields two teams in the semi-pro WPSL and has nurtured a bevy of top WPS talents.

“We’d like to put them into WPS for 2013 and just have pure Fury players that have come through the program,” he said. I don’t know if that’s feasible, but right now we have Allie Long, Tina DiMartino, Gina DiMartino, Rebecca Moros – they’re all playing in WPS now, I think there’s five [Fury products] altogether. We’d like to start with those five and then in the next few years, all our top [youth] players.”

Riley, who notes that he’s happily committed to coach the Independence in 2012, says an ownership group is in place for the New York WPS club and early discussions with league officials have already taken place.

Can WPS really move past its ongoing struggles and climb towards stability, like MLS did at the turn of the century? It may sound like Riley is wearing rose-colored glasses, but the vision is apparently there. Now it’s up to new CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan and the league’s owners to make it a reality.

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