This week, we profile a new book by American football writer Beau Dure on the WPSL Elite League in 2012, in which he rightly persuades the reader that the new league provided a home for players during the year after WPS folded, which ultimately turned into a Gap Year for professional soccer as the NWSL launched in 2013.
Beau Dure's New Book on the WPSL Elite in the U.S. in 2012
Beau Dure is a Washington D.C. area-based soccer writer who has written such books as:
Why the U.S. Men will Never Win the World Cup: A Historical and Cultural Reality Check (2019)
Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game (2015)
Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer (2010)
Dure has also written two books on the women's game: Enduring Spirit: Restoring Professional Women's Soccer To Washington, which was an ethnographic look at the first year of the Washington Spirit in the NWSL in 2013. His second book on women's soccer was released in July 2020 and is entitled: 2012: The Year that Saved Women's Soccer.
Dure is a fantastic writer and knows as much about the women's game as any journalist in the field. His latest book includes extensive quotes from primary sources including WPS league official emails, court documents his own interviews and top women's soccer journalism sites such as Equalizer Soccer and All-White Kit. His main tenant was that the 2012 summer leagues of the United Soccer League's W-League (now defunct), the WPSL and particularly its new WPSL Elite kept women's soccer alive after the WPS went into mothballs following the 2011 season, ultimately folding in 2012. Dure focuses on the WPSL Elite and the vast number of players who either were national team members or ended up later in their career with caps and/or professional careers, and were able to keep their careers going during the 2012 season. The WPSL established their higher level WPSL Elite for the 2012 season and attracted three sides that had previously played in the WPS—the league's last champions Western New York Flash, the Chicago Red Stars (who played in the WPS in 2009 and 2010 but took the 2011 season off due to the turmoil that the WPS was going through—which Dure expertly reviews—and joined the WPSL for the 2011 campaign) and the Boston Breakers (who traced their roots back to the first year of professional soccer in the States with the Women's United Soccer Association or WUSA, which folded after the 2003 season.) WPSL founder Jerry Zanelli brought in other amateur sides including the New York Fury (working off of a long-time youth club on Long Island led by ex-WPS Philadelphia Independence coach—and now Carolina Courage supermo—Paul Riley), along with the Philadelphia Fever, AS Chesapeake Charge in Maryland, New England Mutiny (now based on Ludlow, MA) and FC Indiana (based in Goshen, but has played games all over the State of Indiana).
"2012: The Year That Saved Women's Soccer" by Beau Dure (2020) 98 pages, is available in paperback and on Kindle on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/2012-Year-Saved-Womens-Soccer-ebook/dp/B08BXBLBMG.
Dure describes how the eight league teams quickly split into two halves based on competitiveness and organizational level. The 'Big Four,' (WNY Flash, NY Fury, Boston and Chicago) had largely professional players, while the chasing four in Philadelphia, Chesapeake, FC Indiana and NE Mutiny were more amateur in set-up, though the later—a long time WPSL franchise—was the most competitive of the four who did not make the playoffs; Dure describes how the Munity were in the playoff frame until late in the season.
Note: This reporter had covered FC Indiana during that time (along with attending W-League and WPSL matches over the years from Ontario to California, Ohio to Georgia, Michigan to Washington State and other locations). FC Indiana—a powerhouse in the WPSL (league champions in 2005 and 2007) and in the W-League (losing the 2008 W-League final narrowly to Pali Blues 2-1) essentially fielded a young Haitian National Team side as FCI coach Shek Borkowski had taken over the Haitian national team job earlier in 2012 (though 2016). Dure states that Borkowski's rationale was, "I wanted for Haitian players to experience a higher level of competition than what was available to them domestically, to compete against better players. Keep in mind that in 2012 many top U.S. players, Australian WNT players and Canadians competed in the Elite. Paul Riley coached in the league, so the level was pretty good" (page 22). FC Indiana only earned 5 points from 14 games, finishing bottom of the table with Philadelphia, with the Fever having a better goal difference (-18 vs. -25 for FCI). This WPSL Elite league season was definitely part of Borkowski's building process with his Haitian side and eventually the U-20 side made the 2018 U-20 FIFA WWC Finals in France, doing artistically better than fellow CONCACAF sides the U.S. and Mexico, despite Haiti drawing Germany, Nigeria and China PR in Group D, finishing with 3 goals—scoring twice against Germany in a narrow 3-2 loss—while allowing only 6 goals.
Dure wrote in his section 'Did the WPSL Elite League work?' that, "No one would mistake the WPSL Elite League for a full-fledge first division. Some clubs were solid throughout from the field to the box office. Some simply couldn't ramp up to that level so quickly (page 79)." To the question of whether the WPSL Elite was a professional league, my answer would be 'Somewhat'. The salaries were more at an amateur level and players either worked camps or had other jobs. Did the league do its job in keeping some players involved in the game at a professional type of level? 'Absolutely' and Dure persuasively makes that point throughout his book.
The Breakers won the regular season title with a 11-0-3 record (W-D-L for 33 points), only 5 points ahead of fourth place Chicago (9-1-4 on 28 points)—with the top four (including Western New York Flash and the New York Fury) advancing to the playoffs. For the bottom four sides, the New England Mutiny finished on 21 points (6-3-5) with the Chesapeake Charge on 9 points. The Mutiny had a forfeit win over Chicago and defeated Boston on the field and tied the Flash. Among the other three teams, Philadelphia also tied the Flash, but those were the only points gained by the bottom tier against the four playoff sides, again accentuating the substantial gap between the 'professional sides' and the rest. What we saw with the Elite league in 2012 was essentially the same situation that we see abroad (particularly in European leagues) where there are a few top teams and everyone else is in a second tier (or even lower) in terms of budgets, playing talent, attendance and competitiveness. This was primarily due to the professional/amateur split between the two groups in organizational bandwidth and budgets.
It was expected that the WPSL Elite would have to fill-in for a fully professional women's league for an unknown number of years, much as we had a six year gap between the demise of the WUSA and the start of WPS. No one assumed that pro soccer would come back as soon as it did with the NWSL's launch with 8 sides in 2013. The NWSL has been a huge success compared to the previous two leagues, with record setting crowds in Portland rivaling their MLS Timbers support, and providing a home for the U.S. National Team and internationals from around the world. It is no coincidence that the U.S. won consecutive Women's World Cups (in 2015 in Canada and 2019 in France), and one could argue that it is highly likely that these triumphs would never have happened if professional football had not come back when it did.
Lori Lindsey—a former U.S. international who was on the team that finished second at the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany and also played with the Flash but is most associated with the Washington Spirit in the first two years of the NWSL and now a NWSL announcer on CBS—explained, "I'm grateful for that experience. I think it's overlooked because it is just one season. There was momentum in knowing people were working on a new league [the NWSL]. Between the WUSA's demise and WPS's launch was a long six years period, and people started to waver, saying, 'I'm going to move on with my life if I'm not going to be on the national team.' (In 2012), these games provided touches on the ball and opportunities for players to stay sharp. And those games were pretty high level (pages 94-95)."
Long-time Flash and Courage midfielder McCall Zerboni (who was traded to Sky Blue FC this past offseason from the Courage) echoed Lindsey's comments, "The Flash and Sahlen family did a great job of keeping the standards high and resources available, but there was a big difference between the 2011 and 2012 season especially around the league—examples being the number of fans, the quality of staff and level of competition. The crowds at the games were lower numbers, but they still had the same passion and respect for the entertainment on the pitch. You have to think that the people who were in attendance at the time were the true dedicated and hard-core fans that understood the game and truly enjoyed being supporters of a successful club, (page 69)." Zerboni was an archetype that clearly made Dure's point about the importance of the league when she said, "I believe that if I did not compete in the WPSL Elite that year, I would have moved on from football, and it would have been incredibly hard to return to the NWSL later (page 96)." Dure emphasized, "Whitney Engen was on the U.S. roster for the 2015 World Cup and played in the 2016 Olympics. Allie Long, who debuted with the U.S. team in 2014, also played in the Olympics [and was a 2019 WWC winner]. In 2017, at age 30, McCall Zerboni earned her first callup to the national team. This generation was not lost (page 96)."
Contrast this to the six year gap between the WUSA folding in 2003 and WPS's launch in 2009 (this author had repeated long phone conversations with WPS Founder Tonya Antonucci during that period and it was always 'We need another year to fully get investors, teams, sponsors, to start.' Then the inaugural WPS year dovetailed with the start of the Great Recession—looking back the WPS was doomed from the beginning. The WPSL and the W-League operated during those years as in 2012 but the number of teams were fewer (38 in the W-League in 2004 versus 30 in the W-League in 2012 and only 20 in the WPSL in 2005 versus 65 in 2012) and there was not the higher concentrated level of play that WPSL Elite provided, particularly in utilizing former pro organizations. Current Sky Blue FC General Manager Alyssa LaHue, who worked in the Red Stars front office in 2012, emphasized the importance of Elite to their rapid move to the NWSL in 2013, "WPSL Elite actually gave us a springboard to launch into the 2013 NWSL season, so it was great to have that continuity (fan engagement, roster, social media, ticketing etc.). Big things for us were: Staffing/hiring front office, re-engaging a large-scale fan base, selling season tickets (page 85)."
Dure notes some interesting facts and stories about the league including the continued success of the Western New York Flash, which won the WPSL Elite title, its third in three consecutive years in three different leagues (they would lose in the first NWSL final to Portland in 2013 but would add the NWSL title in 2016 (for 4 league titles in 7 years in 4 different leagues) before moving to North Carolina ahead of the 2017 season, where they have won 2 more league crowns.
The author reminds readers of the stunning goal that the Flash's Toni Pressley scored late in injury time in the WPSL Elite final to tie the game against the Red Stars, which the Flash won on penalties 4-2 after the 1-1 tie. Pressley, the former U.S. youth international who played for Orlando in the NWSL the last 3 seasons and also in Australia and Russia, hit an amazing screamer from well outside of the penalty box—still a wonderful goal to watch (highlights from the game are here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFDsT7CKRPk)
Dure also points out interesting information such as that the USL's W-League Seattle Sounders Women—with Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Sydney Leroux and other USWNT players—averaged over 4,329 fans per game, while the league average was 442, up 25% (333 fans per game) from the 2011 season.
Dure includes the little known fact that Canada's Christine Sinclair and the U.S. Megan Rapinoe were teammates at the University of Portland (for one season). Dure describes how Sinclair scored 3 times and Rapinoe twice in the iconic 4-3 American win in overtime in the 2012 Olympic Games Semifinal at the London Games, with the Maple Leafs controlling play for much of the match
Dure also includes perceptive analysis from Charlie Naimo, the Pali Blues coach at the time, who was the General Manager of the Los Angles Sol in WPS in 2009, won 5 W-League league championships with Jersey Sky Blues and the Pali/Los Angeles Blues and has been a technical director and consultant for the Flash/Courage since 2014. Also, DiDi Haracic (the D.C. United Women of the W-League) provided insight. She recently signed with Sky Blue FC in the NWSL and became a full international with the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team in 2018—her father was an Olympic bobsledder for the nation in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Dure pays tribute to Jerry Zanelli, who began the WPSL in 1998 and launched the WPSL Elite in 2012, and passed away in 2018; Zanelli was an important leader to the semiprofessional women's game in the United States—while also having a few teams in Canada and Mexico—growing his main WPSL league to an behemoth with over 130 teams scheduled to play in 2020, which unfortunately the Coronavirus forced cancellation of earlier this Spring. In 2013, Zanelli's plan was to continue the Elite division with ASA Chesapeake Charge and FC Indiana joining the California Storm, the Houston Aces, Jersey Sky Blue and San Diego Sea Lions, first as a league then as a Cup competition, but it did not go ahead as the NWSL launched, taking the top domestic talent as well as imports from abroad (both American ex-pats and international players). Dure did bring up a good question of why the 2015 WPSL Elite Championship between Real Salt Lake Women and the San Francisco Nighthawks was held, though there was not a regular season for the Elite League. Zanelli briefly thought of relaunching the WPSL Elite after the USL W-League folded after the 2015 summer season, but most of his WPSL franchisees were not favorable to the idea.
Beau Dure's extensive research and interviews with a number of WPSL Elite players, coaches and staff are hugely insightful, even for someone who followed the league closely. For a reader trying to understand why the WPS folded, what took place during the interlude year in 2012 and how NWSL was able to start so quickly, Dure's book is a must read. His attention to detail is impressive and strongly argues that the WPSL Elite was an important stop gap to keep many players still involved in the game, and also provided an important transition to the third launch of the professional game with the NWSL which in spite of the Coronavirus pandemic is playing its eighth consecutive season and was the first North American league in any sport to resume playing this summer—weeks ahead of Major League Soccer, the NBA and Major League Baseball. Credit to Beau Dure for focusing on a frequently forgotten gap year for the league and acknowledging the bump that Western New York, Boston and Chicago (as well as former WPS side Sky Blue) gave to the NWSL ahead of its launch in 2013.
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