They got “next” — in Europe

This week, the Women’s United Soccer Association — the professional women’s soccer league in this country — announced that it is folding. Ironically, this occurred just as the women’s national team was preparing to defend the World Cup. It was the last World Cup, which culminated in a strip-tease, that brought the women’s league into being. But the league never caught on. The Washington Post reports on last ditch efforts to save it. I hope the efforts are successful because, having experienced the distress of losing two Washington baseball teams, I don’t like to see any sports club or enterprise relocate or fold. On the other, I take some guilty pleasure in the anguish of people like Jule Foudy, captain of the women’s national team. Foudy was a leading voice against all efforts to make Title IX enforcment slightly more reasonable. In the Post article, she opines that the demise of her league is “sad reflection on society.” It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the quality of the product.
I saw a high-level women’s soccer match once. It was during the 1996 Olympics and featured Norway and Brazil, two of the five best teams in the world. I found the match entertaining (but you have to understand how much I like soccer). The short-passing was outstanding; the ball skills quite good; and the competition vigorous. However, the RFK soccer field has never seemed bigger. It looked cavernous in the same way an outfield in the low minor leagues does, due to the inability of the minor leaguers to patrol it. The women simply lacked the pace and kicking strength to get up and down the field in a way that produced much end-to-end play. The match was part of a double-header, along with a men’s match between South Korea and Ghana, two second-rate teams at that time. For the first few minutes of the men’s match, I thought my eyes were deceiving me — these were the fastest, most athletic soccer players I had ever seen. In fact, my eyes were deceiving me. It was the previous 90 minutes of women’s play that made the men look almost superhuman.
Julie Foudy hopes that the upcoming World Cup will save the league. She says, “We feel like we’re playing in this World Cup for all the young girls out there who dream to play professional sports.” Former star Jenny Grubb adds, “All of us would do whatever we could to keep our league, but none of us have enough [money] to make a difference.” Actually there is something that could be done — instead of blaming society, change the game to make it more entertaining. This would mean reducing the dimensions of the playing field so that the matches feature end-to-end action and more goal-mouth incidents.
This unsolicited recommendation undoubtedly sounds both horribly sexist and crassly commercial. But there is precedent for it. It’s exactly what the men did when their soccer league (the late, great North American Soccer League) folded in the mid-1980s. Many male professional soccer players embraced indoor soccer which produces the kind of high-impact, high-scoring contests American sports fans were thought to demand. As a purist, I hated the sport. Yet it entertained decent-sized crowds, provided a living for some soccer players, and may even have fueled the dream of a kid or two of playing professional sports.
Don’t expect any such compromises from the women. The better players will just pack up and move to European leagues. I don’t know whether, at this stage of her career, Julie Foudy will join them. If she does, she should feel at home.

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