Women's soccer has staggered along an obstacle-laden path for the past decade in the United States, but it has suffered few weeks more difficult than this one.
The collapse of the Los Angeles Sol, the most recognizable and best-supported team in the fledgling Women's Professional Soccer league, cannot possibly be spun as anything other than a bitter blow to women's soccer.
The WPS hierarchy will try mightily to frame the news as little more than a blip, a victim of location and circumstance, and a move that can strengthen the quality of play as the overall talent pool is spread less thinly.
However, the Sol's sudden demise is most certainly a blow to a league that has suffered from untimely economic woes and limited sponsorship interest and enters its second season battling to establish any kind of foothold in a crowded sports marketplace. Having said that, one team does not a league make and WPS is not yet at the point where the death knell that befell its predecessor, the ill-fated WUSA, is imminent.
What WPS does need is to take some perfect steps and carefully maneuver through the potential minefield that awaits. How appropriate, then, that Step 1 must revolve around the one player in the league most likely to provide such equally deft movements with a ball at her feet.
The Sol's abrupt end leaves huge question marks over the future of Marta, the brilliant Brazilian and four-time World Women's Footballer of the Year. Marta is the star of the league, the one player worth the price of admission merely on the back of her own talents. But shortly after the bleak Sol announcement on Wednesday, rumors started to surface in Brazil that there was a possibility the 23-year-old would seek an out from her American contract.
WPS was adamant such a scenario would not take place, insisting that all Sol players will be allocated to other teams in the league through a special draft. The WPS holds Marta's contract and feels it is operating from a position of strength, and yet it is unlikely that the Brazilian would have agreed to come to America in the first place if not for the fact she could be based in Los Angeles.
It will take some slick negotiation from WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci to arrest the slide of negative publicity, keep hold of Marta and maintain credibility at an acceptable level. With Marta still around, perhaps still on the West Coast with Bay Area team FC Gold Pride, WPS could retain its claim of being the place where the world's finest female players come to perform.
Without Marta, the league loses one of its key selling points and the future starts to look even more grim.
It boils down to this: None of the league's limited television audience is suddenly going to switch off because the L.A. franchise is no longer. But Marta was a reason to watch, with the chance to see her unmatched skills enough to reel in a few channel surfers for a while. Her absence would mean the loss of the most valuable draw in women's soccer.
Whatever the outcome, some tough times lie ahead. WPS officials set realistic targets for the league's inception and have avoided the kind of fiscal meltdown that befell WUSA. But even by going small, building gradually and trimming costs, there have been financial losses – with several franchises leaking between $1 million and $2 million in 2009.
With so much competition in the soccer marketplace, grabbing a share is an almighty task for WPS. Even Major League Soccer has not had things all its own way, with TV ratings dampened by the omnipresent accessibility to a glut of world-class international leagues such as those in England, Spain and Italy.
Survival is a monumental struggle for WPS and it will remain that way. For how much longer may depend on whether this week's damage can be staunched, whether Marta can be retained and whether some positive feeling can be restored.
- Los Angeles Sol