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US women's soccer future is unclear

United States's Megan Rapinoe (15) celebrates a goal with teammate Alex Morgan (13)
Rapinoe and Morgan are quickly becoming the new stars of the USWNT.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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ROCHESTER, NY

It looked for all the world like women’s soccer in the United States is thriving. On a brilliant Saturday afternoon 13,208 shrieky fans crammed into every nook of Sahlen’s Stadium to welcome a beaming US national women’s team home after a third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

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In the first game of a “Fan Tribute Tour,” expected to last 10 games and crisscross the nation over the next few months, the US simply picked apart a Costa Rica team—whose squad was mostly born in the mid-’90s—to win 8-0. Abby Wambach scored twice and got an assist in front of an adoring home crowd and slowly strolled off the field to a rousing ovation in the 71st minute. The perfect day of women’s soccer.

Yet all the merriment masked an existential crisis of sorts. The halcyon might be fleeting.

When this tour ends and the hubbub has died down, as it invariably does in the weeks following any American Women’s World Cup or Olympic campaign, the women’s game threatens to plunge into a black hole. It might not resurface until 2015, the next time there’s a major women’s event on the docket – the Women’s World Cup in Canada.

Following the collapse of the Women’s Professional Soccer league in the spring, no stateside pro league remains. The WPS and its WUSA predecessor battled the same issues. They hemorrhaged money, frequently lost teams and watched average attendance tumble from 9,004 in the WUSA in 2001 to 3,535 in the WPS in 2011. Each league folded after its third season, never managing to parlay national team glory, which has been ample over the last decade and a half, into sustained interest in a domestic league. Nevertheless, they gave women’s soccer a year-round presence and, more importantly, gave the US players a home where they faced elite competition every week.

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To make a problematic situation plain calamitous, the US Soccer Federation released a statement ahead of the game announcing that head coach Pia Sundhage would not be renewing her contract, which expires Nov. 30. She won’t even finish out the tour, in fact, bowing out after the game against Australia game on Sept. 19.

Sundhage is being pursued by her native Sweden to take over its women’s program and is keen to return home. Replacing her will be a daunting task.

Since taking over in November 2007, she has posted an 89-6-10 record, while making the final of every major tournament in that span, winning the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and losing the 2011 Women’s World Cup final on penalties. Her rebuilding of an in-fighting team and subsequent handling of stars and big personalities has been deft.

“It’s hard,” said Sundhage. “It’s a really difficult decision to make. But the fact is I want to go home. It’s a fantastic opportunity for me. I’m very excited for that.”

“She’s been very successful …a terrific coach,” said US Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “We’re going to be very supportive of her winning every silver medal out there.”

Brought onto the field ahead of Saturday’s game to announce the lineup, Sundhage was booed when she confirmed that she’d be leaving, and then roundly cheered when she serenaded the crowd with a verse from a Bob Dylan song. “I’d be sad and blue if not for you,” she crooned.

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Several groups are jostling for position to absorb the hype residue after the tour. The WPSL Elite, a semi-pro league, the W-League, an amateur league, and a group of former WPS franchises each hope to form a new professional league to succeed the WPS as the US Soccer Federation’s sanctioned Division 1. But the former two currently struggle to set even four-digit attendances. And the latter is embryonic.

The question whether the market will bear a professional league persists.

“An economic model the way we have seen is not viable in the short term,” said Gulati. “What we’re looking it at is a very different model because sustainability is far more important than getting started.”

Gulati added that a pro league isn’t crucial to national team success, as all six World Cup and Olympic victories came in years when there wasn’t one. “But it’s important for other pieces, the next wave of players, developing coaches and referees and markets and developing the game more broadly. There are a lot of things a pro league can do for a pro sport that a single [national] team can’t do. And it’s really a combination of those two that’s best.”

But the failure of a third league would be damning. Investors are in short supply as it is. The national team players who would presumably headline any new division are rightly cautious.

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“We’re in a really unique spot now,” said midfielder Megan Rapinoe. “We’re selling out stadiums, we have legitimate superstars on the [national] team and our profile is so high. We have a lot of popularity and drawing power but we need to be careful about just going into a league. We want to do it in the right way and not rush into anything that’s not going to last.”

If the players are willing to wait out the right situation, they nevertheless need an interim solution to keep their careers on track. With professional women’s leagues proliferating around the world, an exodus looms. Lindsey Horan, a bright 17-year old talent, recently signed a six-figure contract – a rarity even in the WPS – with Paris Saint-Germain of France right out of high school.

Myriad crises threaten a game that has finally wrested a prominent and permanent place in the national consciousness. The players say they aren’t nervous.

“I don’t worry,” said Rapinoe. But she conceded that “there’s definitely a need for a lot of attention.”

Attention. And a league. And fans. And money. Oh, and a coach.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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