Over the next two weeks, we examine news from the minor leagues in North America, focused on new franchises in 2022, and review a planned WPSL Canada loop that has received some negative publicity as just another non-professional league and not an aid to Canada's quest for its very own professional league.
This week we look at the USL W League, which will start with over 30 franchises in 2022, the WPSL Canada effort and new WPSL franchises entering the league. Next week we will examine some new United Women's Soccer (UWS) franchises in the States—the other summer amateur league—entering the top league and their developmental UWS League Two for 2022.
USL W League Adds More Franchises for 2022
We have previously been alerting the readers about new franchises coming into the USL's W League for 2022. The league has now reached their target of 30 teams and intend to keep adding teams at the semi-professional level (players can still play collegiately after playing in the W League while in high school or college) as the USL builds towards 12 professional Division 2 teams in the USL Super League for 2023.
The W League's founding membership includes five clubs from the men's division two USL Championship, three clubs from the men's professional third division USL League One, 17 clubs from the men's amateur (fourth division) USL League Two and five new USL expansion clubs. Major metropolitan areas that will have teams include: Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York City, St. Louis, Tampa and Washington D.C.
Joel Nash, Vice President of Youth & Pre-Professional for Lansing City FC in Michigan, said, "The momentum we have seen in the W League is a reflection of the increased investment in women's soccer across the country and the world. Communities are asking to see more women's soccer in their backyards and players are asking for more opportunities to continue their careers. We are thrilled that the W League will be able to provide upwards of 750 playing opportunities to our players and bring more women's soccer to communities that are passionate about the women's game."
The league's historic first signing is forward Elise Holcey of Tormenta Women in Statesboro, Georgia. A Savannah native, Holcey (17) has competed with TFC's Academy team since 2019 and currently serves as the captain of the 2003/04 Girls Ibis team. Holcey led her team to a second place finish in the National League Piedmont Conference during the 2021 season. On top of competing with TFC's Academy squad, Holcey also secured a spot on Tormenta's U17G Elite team at this year's USL Academy Cup. Off of the pitch, Holcey attends Savannah Arts Academy (Class of 2022) and is a Tormenta Futures coach, mentoring children ages two to 10 in soccer and life lessons. The 17-year-old's jump from the Academy to the women's pre-professional side is a landmark moment for the USL and illustrates that the women's pathway is indeed a path of upward mobility. With the launch of the pre-professional W League, Division II professional Super League (to start in 2023) and the ongoing development of the USL Academy's girls programming, players like Holcey will now have more opportunities than ever to pursue ongoing careers under the USL's fully formed women's pathway, which offers opportunities at every level of the game.
Betsy Haugh, Director of Women's Soccer Operations for the USL explained, "Elise's signing speaks to the USL's overall mission of creating opportunities for our players to advance within the game. We have been consciously building the W League to reflect the greater mission of the USL and to see that pathway come to fruition on our first player signing is evidence that we will be able to continue to offer development opportunities through our women's pathway."
For our previous announcements of USL W League franchises for 2022, see:
The Week in Women's Football: Simon joins Spurs; UWS players abroad; New W-League teams - Tribal Football and The Week in Women's Football: Kristina Maksuti interview; Paul Riley fired; Indoor Pro Soccer; - Tribal Football.
On the east coast, new teams recently added include:
- Cristos FC of Baltimore
- Patuxent Football Athletics of Maryland
- Manhattan FC of New York
- AC Connecticut
In the Midwest, new teams launching are:
- Green Bay, Wisconsin Glory
- Minnesota TBD
- Chicago Dutch Lions
- Detroit City FC
- AFC Ann Arbor
- Midwest United—Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Kings Hammer FC—Cincinnati, Ohio area
In the Southeast, the following franchises have been added:
- Tampa Bay United
- Florida Elite Soccer Academy
- Miami AC
- Tennessee Soccer Club
- Charlotte Independence
East Coast Expansion
Cristos FC of Baltimore is joining the W League for 2022. Darius Taylor, team president, said, "Christos FC has been a member of the soccer community for 25 years and has competed at the highest amateur levels. We have now elevated our program with a women's team that will compete against other talented teams in USL W League. We look forward to a great season!"
Also in Maryland, Patuxent Football Athletics is joining both the W League and the men's USL League 2 (fourth division). Founded in 2018, Patuxent Football Athletics was originally established as a premier development academy with a focus on providing elite programming to players ages 13 to 19. The club operates on the mission of providing southern Maryland's top pre-professional players the opportunity to train and compete at the highest level while maintaining their collegiate eligibility.
Through this mission, Patuxent Football Athletics hopes to create programming that helps its players develop to their full potential while fostering a passion for excellence and creating an environment in which players can exercise both personal and professional growth. The club's player-centered training model focuses on providing quality programs and pathways to help lead its membership to the next level of their careers in the professional ranks. Joining the USL will not only allow the Maryland-based club to enhance its player development model, but also provide additional growth opportunities for the club's executives, coaches and staff.
Manhattan SC, begun in 1997, has become one of the largest and most competitive soccer clubs in New York City. The club offers programming for all levels of development from youth to pre-professional and Manhattan SC has a membership of over 800 families that represent all five boroughs of New York City. Through the club's dedication to mastering the sport of soccer, Manhattan SC seeks to instill a love for the game while also teaching its players the value of self-esteem and work ethic. The club's approach to player growth is centered on its professionally-developed curriculum, which was designed to teach players the skills they will need to compete at the highest levels of their games.
The club aims to foster an environment of admiration for the game through its core values of commitment, sportsmanship and integrity and believes that learning these values often translates to a winning mentality on the pitch. Beyond player development, Manhattan SC works to provide nearly 20 percent of its players' financial aid to support their growth within the game, making Manhattan SC a leader among travel clubs in the nation for assisting its players financially. On top of that, Manhattan SC has joined up with select community partners to provide academic support, college mentoring and leadership training to its high school-age scholarship players through the MSC Scholars Fund.
This initiative builds on the club's existing YSF Scholars platform, which provides guidance and support for eighth-grade players navigating the public high school admissions process. The club's hope is that, by supporting its players in the classroom, Manhattan SC players will be able to replicate that success on the field and create opportunities for themselves to fully thrive at the college level and beyond.
AC Connecticut of Newtown, Connecticut began in 2012 and is a leading destination for youth soccer development in the lower Connecticut region. In February 2021, the club made a giant leap forward towards its vision to connect youth soccer with the professional pathway by entering into a formal partnership with USL Championship club Hartford Athletic on its USL League Two men's side. Continuing its partnership with Hartford Athletic, AC Connecticut will now serve as the W League affiliate to the USL Championship club and thus Hartford Athletic will no longer operate a stand-alone W League franchise but instead expand upon the successful AC Connecticut partnership to establish a W League club with professional oversight from Hartford Athletic's staff.
Green Bay Glory is the first W League team from Wisconsin to sign up for the 2022 season. The Glory was founded two years ago (2019) and seeks to provide a platform for players to grow as athletes while also instilling a life-long love for the game. The club hopes to use its on-field product and dedication to its community to bring soccer fans together to create and fuel a passion for the beautiful sport.
Minnesota [Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul] is building a community franchise led by President Andrea Yoch. The as yet unnamed club is receiving input from fans, with a few of the choices including Minnesota Aurora, Arctic Minnesota, Minnesota Redpines and Minnesota Whitetails. The total number of investors is approximately 3,000. The club's WeFunder campaign finished on December 6 and was sitting at just over $1 million worth of shares sold, with a minimum investment of $100. Regardless of their investment level, each investor has an equal voice in the club's direction. Yoch said, "It's not a new model for sports or even soccer ownership specifically. Detroit City [see more below], who's men's team plays in the USL Championship and women's team plays in UWS, and Chattanooga FC in the NISA [a division three men's league begun in 2019 but has had struggles attracting and keeping franchises] [have done the same]." Minnesota's franchise will waive registration fees for players to remove at least one financial barrier to playing, and the league does allow clubs to provide players with housing, transportation, and meals.
Other Midwestern teams joining the USL W-League include the Chicago Dutch Lions in Illinois, who are also joining USL League 2 (the fourth division of men's soccer in the U.S.) which was founded in 2020. Chicago is one of nine Dutch Lions teams across the U.S.—including Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, Washington D.C., Houston, Florida Gulf Coast, Miami, New York City and Oceanside, California. The Chicago franchise was the 30th club in the W League for 2022—significant for the league in hitting its target ahead of year one—and have sent over 70 players to the professional ranks. They will also stay in the WPSL (see more below), creating a ladder type of system within the club for the women players.
Detroit City FC, long a symbol of grass-roots independent professional football in the U.S., is moving from the NISA to join the USL Championship (division two) in men's soccer. Le Rouge plans to field a women's team in the W-League in 2022 or in the future, and the team has recently launched a women's club in the UWS. The club has 2,000 clubs in its youth scheme. Detroit City FC was founded in 2012 by the members of a local co-ed rec league and played in the amateur NPSL until 2019 when it joined NISA. By then, it had become the most successful community-oriented club in the nation, drawing more than 5,000 fans a game for five seasons in a row after its move to Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit. The stadium was renovated with money raised by Le Rouge. Le Rouge dominated NISA, winning the fall 2020, spring 2021 and fall 2021 titles along with the 2020-21 league championship.
AFC Ann Arbor has joined the USL League 1 (third division for men) and W League for 2022. Bilal Saeed, Chair of AFC Ann Arbor explained, "It's exciting to be a part of the new chapter of the W League's long history [including the USL's W League's previous incarnation from 1994-2015] as well as having both our men's and women's teams under the USL umbrella. 2022 is going to be an exciting time for soccer in Ann Arbor."
AFC Ann Arbor was founded in 2014 with the goal of creating a community-based club that would promote the growth of the game within the United States. With a diverse leadership group made up of community members, former players and entrepreneurs, AFC Ann Arbor has strived to create a product that reflects the essence and drive of the Ann Arbor community [home of the University of Michigan and less than an hour's drive west of Detroit] both on and off the pitch. The club emphasizes its dedication to its community through its focus on social initiatives and its commitment to creating a game day environment that is welcoming to all soccer fans and families.
Midwest United FC of Michigan-based club will also compete in the league's inaugural season in 2022. Founded in 1990, Midwest United FC—formerly Grand Rapids Area Soccer Association—was the first youth soccer club in Grand Rapids and has since become one of the Midwest's top clubs for player development. Through its longstanding history in the game, Midwest United FC has worked diligently to make each of its players as successful as possible by providing opportunities for player development and confidence building.
In Ohio, Kings Hammer FC of the Cincinnati area is joining the league for 2022.
In joining the W League, Kings Hammer FC will further its commitment to the growth of the women's game and continue its success in developing first-class athletes. The club has notably been the home to championship-winning players such as Aubrey Bledsoe and Bayley Fiest (both of the 2021 NWSL Champions Washington Spirit) and international talent such as Katie Murray (U.S. youth international teams). Through membership in the USL's pre-professional women's league, Kings Hammer FC will now offer athletes in the greater Cincinnati area access to a competitive game day experience and a direct pathway to the professional game through the USL's robust women's pathway. Kings Hammer FC will be holding its first USL W League tryouts on Thursday, January 6 from 2-4:30pm at Town & Country Sports Complex in Wilder, Kentucky.
Tampa Bay United is joining the W League for 2022 as the first team to join from Florida; the organization was founded in 2011. Note: Tampa is the home to the USL League offices
Florida Elite Soccer Academy in St. Johns [north of St. Augustine] has also joined the W League for 2022. Formed by the merging of two soccer clubs in 2014, Florida Elite Soccer Academy pledges to be a full-service soccer organization, committed to the growth of the sport. Over the past seven years, Florida Elite Soccer Academy has grown into one of the largest and most successful youth soccer clubs in Florida, securing multiple titles at the state, regional and national youth levels. The club is now looking to continue that success by establishing a competitive platform through the USL W League for its women's senior team. The club has fostered a player-centric approach with the goal of developing its players from the youth level to the pre-professional level and beyond. Focusing on each players' individual development allows Florida Elite Soccer Academy to create a competitiveness within the club, helping its players grow as one to benefit the club as a whole. Through a unified approach to development, the club hopes to inspire each of its players to pursue a career at the next level of their game.
Miami AC will field a women's W-League and USL League Two (division four) side in 2022. Founded in 2021, Miami AC was established with a mission to impact the game by developing first class athletes and citizens both on and off the pitch. Mayowa Owolabi, President of Miami AC, said, "Miami Athletic Club (MAC) was created to provide players with the most professional opportunity and access to develop and grow a love for the beautiful game. With that said, our goals are larger than just developing the next professional athlete but also to grow the next first class citizens in the country and find a way to impact the local communities in many ways on and off the field."
Tennessee Soccer Club has joined the W League for 2022 and also joined the USL League 2 on the men's side. Tennessee SC is the largest competitive youth soccer club in the state, serving over 3,500 families in six cities across the Greater Nashville Area. The club offers opportunities at every level of the game with the mission of promoting a love for soccer by developing excellence on the pitch.
Charlotte Independence of North Carolina is set to begin play in the women's pre-professional league in 2022. The Independence is a member of the USL Championship men's professional league and USL League Two men's pre-professional league and will introduce its women's senior team in the USL W League in 2022. Charlotte Independence was founded in 2014, with its men's professional team joining the USL Championship that same year. This year the club unveiled a newly renovated $40 million soccer-specific venue—American Legion Memorial Stadium—with a 10,500 seating capacity, skyline views to the pitch and is centrally-located in the city of Charlotte for fan convenience.
WPSL Canada Announcement brings mixed-reviews
The decades old summer amateur league Women's Premier Soccer League or WPSL announced this month that they would start a Canadian league—WPSL Canada—which was received with enthusiasm from younger players but one senior international who is now playing professionally in Europe did not view it as what the country needs as far as a fully professional Canadian professional league.
Canada's Stephanie Labbe, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, feels that WPSL Canada is not the professional league that her country needs to further advance the game. (Photo credit: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
For more on the effort to start a Canadian Professional League along with one or two NWSL franchises, utilizing the momentum from their Olympic Games Gold Medal win last summer, see: The Week in Women's Football: What's next for Canada; Evans leaves Arsenal; U.S tournaments - Tribal Football. Canadian international goalkeeper and 2020 Olympic Gold Medalist Steph Labbe, now at Paris St. Germain in France, was particularly critical of the announcement which began with what she saw as a misleading tweat: "We're answering the call for a Canadian Women's League. Get Ready Canada. #WeAreComing," which was posted along with a video by the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) Canada.
Labbe told the CBC that she felt that the announcement was misleading and did not include the crucial element of being professional, "The headline they used, 'We're answering the call for a Canadian Women's League,' I think they purposefully left out 'professional' and let's be clear: the call has been and continues to be for a professional league that's sanctioned by Canada [Soccer Association]….I think they're just trying to capitalize on what's happening in Canada and push their league and their message. This one needs to have a long-term development plan and it will provide Canadians opportunities to play for eight to 11 months per year when it's truly professional."
Labbé further added definitively, "This is not it," meaning the call for a national professional league, noting that it was of similar quality to the WPSL in the States.
The WPSL, which has had teams in Canada in the past in British Colombia and in Windsor, Ontario—across the river from Detroit, Michigan—has operated for over two decades (since 1998) as a summer semi-professional league that allows its high school and college players to play while still retaining their collegiate eligibility. In the U.S., the WPSL is a good summer league but with quite fluctuating standards across its 140 + franchises in 35 states. I never attend a WPSL game without calling the coach or team manager before I leave—even this year, days and game times were changed not because of COVID but for travel accommodation and other reasons, and always with little notice. For years, teams have qualified for the playoffs and then not played, with the league adding the next placed team in the division or conference, with an attitude of such blasé that the practice has become normalized and quite routine—but it doesn't further the sport and confuses followers of the game.
WPSL Canada later provided some more details on their plans, including that it would begin as a Division II League (though typically in the States that denotes fully professional), with a goal to establish a professional league in a 2-5 year window, which would be owned and operated by Canadians. The WPSL is an American league and the Northern California-based organization supports this expansion north of the border and likely will be the model. Two conferences—Canada West and Canada East—will be established with-in conference regular season play and semifinals leading to a national championship. This format will keep travel costs down, though Calgary to Vancouver in the West is a two hour flight and by car a 600 mile, 11 hour trip. For now, the teams announced are: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, with more to be added in 2022.
As a model for the WPSL Canada to work from, I think of the WPSL Elite League which operated in 2012 as a higher level league after the professional Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) folded following the 2011 season and the NWSL was in the initial planning stages. For more on the WPSL Elite League, see our review in 2020 of the excellent book by American football writer Beau Dure on the WPSL Elite League in 2012 entitled 2012: The Year That Saved Women's Soccer, (https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-profile-on-beau-dure-s-new-book-on-wpsl-elite-league-4334817). The league did keep professional soccer alive with such former WPS teams as Chicago Red Stars and Boston Breakers in their fold, but not all the teams spent to their level and the standard of play was inconsistent at times. The advantage of that league is that built off of existing amateur or professional teams whereas the Canadian effort would not have the former to build off of.
Samantha Gouveia (22), captain of Canadian collegiate national champion MacEwan University in Edmonton, took a different view than Labbe's, "I share the same thought as all the young female football players in the nation thinking, 'Finally.' It's about time that we start creating opportunities for women's soccer and this is the birth of it. The talent we have here in the nation is unquestionably equivalent to those in other nations. It's just that we don't have the opportunity here." She added that she would join the league if she had the chance.
The Canadian Premier League on the men's side just completed its third season and has been able to develop a division II men's league coast to coast with 8 teams; the league is expected to add two more in 2022, despite the COVID pandemic and having to conduct a bubble format season in 2020 in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island in Eastern Canada, which was very successful. It was even more phenomenal that the revered Canadian Football League (gridiron)—just held its Grey Cup Championship game in mid-December and could not play at all in 2020 due to financial reasons as the Canadian government declined to carry most of the expense for their planned Winnipeg bubble. There are three MLS franchises in the country in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and the CPL has worked well so far, sliding in at the Division II level. The women can do the same but need patience and sufficient capital for livable wages and expenses for players and staff. We will keep readers apprised of this effort in the months to come.
U.S. teams joining the WPSL in 2022 include two new teams in Minnesota
Joy Athletic Club will join the league for the upcoming 2022 season to become the league's second Minnesota-based expansion side for 2022 and eighth team from the state of Minnesota. Manitou FC was announced early in December. Joy Athletic was founded in 2009 by its parent corporation Joy of the People (JOTP), a non-profit organization whose mission is to build communities and health through play. The organization is committed to providing a high-performance and sustainable women's soccer team which will feature individuals developed at JOTP. Joy Athletic is set to play its inaugural WPSL season at Oriole Stadium in St. Louis Park, a suburb of the Twin Cities. As a note, we are seeing more professional soccer organizations in North America become social advocate organizations and use the popularity of the sport to drive social change and reach under-served communities.
Manitou FC will also join the league for the 2022 season. Based in the Twin Cities suburb of White Bear Lake, the club was founded in 1981 as White Bear Soccer Club; the club's Board of Directors changed its name to Manitou FC in 2020 to further reflect the 40 years of community ties and tradition, while simultaneously welcoming players from all over the Twin Cities. By joining the WPSL, the club sees the league's platform as another opportunity to provide its youth players with the ambition to play for its women's first team.
Edi Buro will serve as the WPSL team's head coach and Zuheer Al Abase will serve as his assistant. Buro has been Manitou's sporting director since 2015 after coming off a ten year professional career within the United States (at the USL Second Division level) and Europe (in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Under Buro's direction, Manitou has developed more than 40 college players who have signed at the NCAA Division I, II, and III levels.
New York Dutch Lions are joining WPSL for 2022 (see more on the Dutch Lions organization above in the W-League section).
In the Chicago area, one new club is joining for 2022: Midwest Select SA in suburban Northwestern Indiana. Midwest Select SA is dedicated to promoting and enhancing the development of women's soccer in northwest Indiana. The club's primary objective is to create opportunities for young women in their area to grow and develop into talented and dynamic athletes by equipping them with the necessary tools to excel both on-and-off the field. The club will focus on establishing a strong, dependable foundation within their organization which aims to construct a competitive environment. This mission will allow their players to flourish and advance women's soccer while empowering the younger generation in their region. The club will play its 2022 home matches at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana. The recently renovated stadium has new field turf, updated stands, locker rooms, and facilities. The stadium can also hold approximately 4,300 spectators.
Downstate Illinois in Peoria, the Illinois Lady Cobras will join the league for the 2022 season. The club plans to host soccer clinics for Peoria's youth as well as raise money for the Children's Hospital of Illinois. For the 2022 season, the Lady Cobras will play its home matches at Eastside Sports Complex, the home field for East Peoria high school and Peoria high school soccer.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey
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