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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Sports

WPS kick starts interest in sport


Last week’s championship match completed the inaugural season of the Women’s Professional Soccer League, offering the world a chance to examine the progress it made.

In its first year, WPS showed potential to last in a country that has previously turned its back on the sport.

After the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) folded in 2003, the future of women’s soccer in the U.S. appeared nonexistent. But as players and coaches coped with the loss by looking abroad for other opportunities, others were fighting to return the sport to the U.S.

WUSA was founded after the U.S.’s success in the 1999 World Cup and the resulting popularity of the sport, the league was unable to keep that momentum because of a lack of fans and revenue. Three seasons later, the league went under.

Players like Sophia Mundy, a native Houstonian and former UH star, were forced to play abroad until a new league emerged. Mundy spent two years playing for the premier Icelandic league in Reykjavik before the opportunity to play in the U.S. brought her home.

Mundy said she enjoyed the experience abroad, but feels more comfortable is playing in her homeland.

‘I enjoyed travelling Europe and seeing many different parts of the world and that was unforgettable,’ Mundy said. ‘But there is no place like home, and to play this game here in front of friends and family is awesome.’

Considering the course her career has taken since graduation, it’s hard to believe Mundy left UH only two years ago. In her first year at UH she set records for the most goals (14) and most points (33) in a single season, and finished her collegiate career three goals shy of an overall school record. When WPS formed, she signed with the Boston Breakers, where she has been since.

Opportunity arises

At just 24-years-old, Mundy already has post-collegiate experience that shows college players what is possible if they have enough ambition.

‘I knew my ability and had the desire and drive, which is important if you want to continue playing after college,’ Mundy said. ‘I knew if I went into those experiences with focus and hunger that it would be a positive experience and I would be successful.’

With a flourishing league and expansion in the works, women’s soccer has new stars and opportunities for up-and-coming players who just finished college UH head soccer coach Susan Bush said.

‘A professional league offers another level for athletes to aspire and presents a career option after collegiate soccer,’Bush said. ‘It is nice to know that their passion for the game does not have to die at the age of 22.’

One key problem for women’s soccer is filling stadiums. Soccer hasn’t been the most widely received sport in the U.S., and when women are involved, the interest seems to be lower.

‘I think the league has the potential to be very successful over time,’ Bush said ‘It is a process to introduce any women’s professional league in a society saturated with so many sporting options.’

The average attendance for a WPS game in the first season was around 3,000, this pales in comparison to at least 6,000 and up to 30,000 for Major League Soccer and 60,000 for some European clubs.

‘This time around, there is a better chance for this league to thrive and grow,’ Mundy said ‘The business plan for the WPS is better and there are great people involved in the various clubs. We need fans to continue to support our clubs as well as continue to market this special league.’

Sustaining the sport through rough patches is part of the territory. After a ghastly performance in the 1996 World Cup, in which the U.S. was eliminated in the first round, there was little mention of MLS, and the league suffered. Teams like the Tampa Bay Mutiny, San Jose Clash, and the New York/New Jersey Metrostars disbanded.

Big moves bring hope

American soccer found an upswing, though, when they qualified and progressed to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup. Suddenly it wasn’t so embarrassing to be an American soccer fan, and MLS’s popularity began to expand. San Jose and New York regrouped with new clubs, and the Designated Player Rule brought exciting foreign players to MLS.

WPS finds itself in a similar situation, with problems that can spell disaster for the league. Mundy remains confident, though, and hopes women’s soccer will have the same success as MLS.

‘MLS has done a great job of catching the eye of big names around the world (Ljundberg, Beckham, Blanco, etc.) and bringing them in to make that league better and more marketable’ Mundy said.I think with some time, the WPS will get more teams and a larger fan base.’

As a player, there is little one can do in terms of marketing the team or keeping fans.

Mundy, however, is determined to keep women’s soccer thriving in the states.

‘As for players like me and those involved with the WPS, we will continue to spread the word and be ambassadors for the women’s game at the professional level here in the U.S.,’Mundy said.


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