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WOMEN'S SOCCER

New women's soccer league takes world view

A deep roster of international stars, including the L.A. Sol's Marta, could give Women's Professional Soccer a leg up on the failed WUSA.

March 29, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

The Los Angeles Sol makes its debut today -- a new team in a new league in an old sport in a country that has yet to fully embrace the idea of kicking a round ball across a grass field.

We are talking about soccer, specifically women's soccer, and while the U.S. went delirious over the likes of American stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and all the rest of 1999 Women's World Cup winners, a decade has slipped by since then.

Those 10 years saw the rise and fall of the Women's United Soccer Assn., or WUSA for short. The league spent a lot of money in a little time -- somewhere between $50 million and $100 million -- and lasted only three seasons.

Now, six years after the 2003 collapse of WUSA, comes Women's Professional Soccer, a seven-team circuit that, even before the first ball is kicked this afternoon at the Home Depot Center in Carson, again has attracted many of the world's top female players.

Their hope is that on the second go-round, even in tough economic times, the sport can gain a modest foothold.

Rosters have been held to 22, smaller stadia are being utilized, ticket prices are purposely affordable, and player salaries average only $32,000, a figure skewed somewhat by the $500,000 reportedly being earned by Sol striker Marta, the three-time FIFA women's world player of the year from Brazil.

In short, costs are being contained while fans and sponsors are being wooed.

The advantage WPS has over Major League Soccer, now in its 14th season, is that while MLS struggles to bring the sport's top men's players to the U.S., the world's leading female stars have jumped at the opportunity -- all except the world champion Germans, who have opted to stay home ahead of the 2011 Women's World Cup, which they are staging.

As a result, WPS features 35 foreign players from nine countries joining 119 Americans, whose ranks include veteran World Cup winners Brianna Scurry, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain and Tiffeny Milbrett, as well as most of the 2008 Olympic champion U.S. national squad.

The six WPS teams, in addition to the Sol, are FC Gold Pride of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Boston Breakers, the Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC of New York/New Jersey, St. Louis Athletica and the Washington Freedom, the Sol's opponent in today's inaugural game (3 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel).

The abundance of talent on the field should produce lively and competitive matches, especially with the way the leading players were carefully and evenly distributed among the seven teams.

Success will depend on the approach taken by the clubs, and as far as one of the Sol owners is concerned, the object should be to entertain.

Rudi Bianchi is the managing partner of Blue Star LLC, which is co-owner of the Sol along with AEG. Italian-born and a longtime fan of Inter Milan, Bianchi favors a stylish, creative, adventurous approach.

"For me, soccer is like a joy, like when you go to see a movie," he said.

"Personally, I was not really a fan of women's football, to tell the truth. But I went to Umea in Sweden to see Marta. It was a cold day that day and I said, 'What am I doing here?' Then I saw her touch the ball two or three times and it brought me back to when I was still young and saw the creativity of George Best, the creativity of [Roberto] Baggio, the creativity of the great players.

"From that point, it made me love the women's game so much because the women still have the space and the tempo" to play the game in that fashion.

So when the Sol set out to build its team, there was an emphasis on acquiring technically gifted foreign players such as Brazil's Marta, China's Han Duan, Japan's Aya Miyama and France's Camile Abily.

"They are all going to try to play soccer and enjoy," Bianchi said. "We are not talking about results. I personally don't care about results. My result is to entertain people. I want you to come to the game and say, 'I really enjoy and don't get bored.' The winning and the losing" is secondary.

North Americans on the Sol roster, including national team players such as midfielders Shannon Boxx and Aly Wagner and defender Stephanie Cox of the U.S. and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc of Canada, will have other ideas.

For them, winning will be paramount, and it is up to three Englishmen -- Sol Coach Abner Rogers and assistants Hubert Busby and Neil Powell -- to find a way to both win and entertain.

That challenge begins today.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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latimes.com/sports

Previewing the season

Grahame L. Jones provides a capsule look at the seven Women's Professional Soccer teams.

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