U.S. Soccer in discussions to keep women home after Olympics
U.S. women's soccer team will play Japan on Thursday for the Olympic gold medal
Next global women's tournament will be the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada
U.S. Soccer in talks to find sustainable leagues for team's players in America
LONDON -- The U.S. women's soccer team gets a chance for redemption after last year's World Cup final defeat to Japan when the two teams meet again in the Olympic gold-medal game on Thursday (2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN). A thrilling (and controversial) 4-3 victory against Canada in the semifinals has put the U.S. women back near the top of the American sports conversation, not least because they came from behind three times in the second half against the Canadians before Alex Morgan's dramatic game-winner in the dying moments of extra-time.
The focus in the team is on Thursday's final, of course, but soccer fans in America are wondering what happens after the Olympics. There won't be another major global women's tournament until the 2015 World Cup in Canada, and the U.S. is without a top-flight pro league after the demise of the WPS earlier this year. In a wide-ranging conversation with SI.com on Monday, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said talks are taking place that he hopes will provide a solution that keeps most of the U.S. Olympic team players in America instead of forcing them to join leagues overseas.
"We're having discussions about that right now," Gulati said. "It's a little bit awkward having all those discussions when players on this team are part of that discussion. We're not raising that [with them], but we've talked with some people around them, representatives and so on. I think over the next 30 to 60 days we'll have a better handle on what might be possible for next year and beyond."
"We've talked with club owners and teams that are in the USL and teams in the WPSL," Gulati continued, referring to still-existing domestic women's semipro leagues. "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."
Several U.S. players had short-term deals with semipro club teams this year, including the Seattle Sounders women (Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux), D.C. United women (Becky Sauerbrunn), the Boston Breakers (Heather O'Reilly) and the New York Fury (Tobin Heath). But the lion's share of their year has been spent in camps with the national team to prepare for the Olympics.
With no major tournaments taking place in the next two years, finding a stable club situation becomes paramount. U.S. right back Ali Krieger, whose knee injury prevented her from playing in the Olympics, has been the only U.S. regular playing overseas -- at Frankfurt in Germany. More players may join her abroad, and I recently wrote about the leagues that most interest the U.S. players. But those are semipro leagues too, with their own attendant concerns.
From Gulati's perspective, players should be able to find the stability they want in the United States. "I think realistically, most of the players -- if what I'm hearing from their representatives is correct -- would like to be playing club soccer in the U.S. and will be playing in the U.S. if we can have something in front of them that makes not only economic sense but soccer sense," Gulati said. "The players at the beginning of their careers want to make sure they're improving at the right level and want to be in the best possible situation. Whether it's because of a combined national team/residency program or a pro-league set-up that is inviting enough for them, I'm optimistic that many if not most [of the Olympic team] will be playing in the U.S. in one form or another next year."
When asked whether U.S. Soccer should be doing more to support women's club soccer in America, Gulati said the governing body could only do so much. "We'd love to do more in a lot of different areas," he said. "Eventually you have to make choices. The financial commitments required to sustain a pro league at the level of the WPS and the WUSA are far beyond the long-term capacity of U.S. Soccer or virtually any other national governing body. You're talking about tens and hundreds of millions of dollars that have been invested. That has to be from the private sector."
"Can we do more in terms of initiating a reasonable model that will go forward? I think we are doing that and have done that," Gulati continued. "What role we'll play in the future will depend on being able to develop that model. We [the federation] pour more money into the women's game than just about anybody in the world -- primarily in the national team. But we're not getting crowds of 50,000 at women's national team games yet. They're getting better in a number of cases, but it's got to make sense economically, and it's got to make sense ultimately for people in the private sector."
I've argued before that with the private sector hesitant to invest tens of millions in women's soccer leagues, FIFA should change its schedule to stage the Women's World Cup every two years for the continued growth of the sport. But Gulati doesn't feel that it's realistic to expect FIFA to do so.
"You can't create world championships where they don't exist," says Gulati, who's also a FIFA insider. "I think having the Olympics and the world championship is different from the men's side, where you've got top pro leagues and the European Championship and Copa Libertadores and all those things. You can't manufacture growth of the [women's] game. So it's going to take time."
As for other topics, Gulati says he'll wait until after the Olympics to decide on whether to pursue extending the contract of U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, which ends this year. Sundhage, for her part, has not said whether she would like to continue in the job that she has had since late 2007. In three major tournaments, she has led the U.S. to the final in each one (2008 Olympics, '11 World Cup, '12 Olympics), winning the '08 Olympic gold medal.
"We'll sit down and review the situation, both in conjunction with the coach and then separately from the coach," Gulati says. "We'll talk to some players and look at not just this tournament but the last several years. Obviously, we also have to look at what Pia wants to do."
Before that takes place, however, there's the small matter of winning another Olympic gold medal on Thursday. "We're where we want to be," Gulati says. "The team is very focused. I think without saying it they probably would have said before the tournament an ideal set-up would have been playing Japan in the final."
Now here we are: USA-Japan, Thursday, for another world championship. In women's soccer, storylines don't get much better than that.