Zephyr at the Zenith: Spokane's women's soccer franchise celebrates USL Super League news

Feb. 14—Spokane Zephyr FC and the USL Super League have spoken at length about opportunity and how necessary it is to help develop professional women's soccer throughout the United States.

On Friday, the USL Super League was officially recognized as a Division I sanctioned league.

The announcement means Zephyr FC will be competing at the highest level of women's soccer, the same level as the National Women's Soccer League.

"We are beyond proud of the work that Spokane has done to get the league sanction to get us here," Katie Harnetiaux, president and co-owner of USL Spokane, said Monday. "Being part of the inaugural group of teams is a pretty big deal."

Spokane is one of eight teams — including the 14 NWSL teams — that is competing at Division I level.

"Congratulations to the USL Super League on receiving its sanctioning as a Division One professional women's soccer league," U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said in a statement. "The USL Super League is looking to grow the women's game and to expand the opportunities for women to compete at the highest professional level."

The USL Super League hopes to add eight more teams in future seasons and potentially more, if the league feels expansion is necessary. A minimum of two must be added by the fourth year, a Division I stipulation, but the league expects to shoot past that number soon.

"I think the opportunity of expansion for women to continue to play in the United States, and it's not just the players, it's the coaches and the referees, its front office staff," Harnetiaux said. "We are expanding opportunity at every level of this club, for women to continue to do what they want to do, what they have grown up doing."

Harnetiaux said the league was initially thinking of Division Two sanctioning, but the owners of the inaugural teams wanted to shoot higher.

The USLSL announced in May that it would apply for Division I sanctioning.

The rules and regulations for the two divisions are varied, with the first requiring much more.

For instance, U.S. Soccer stipulates Division I leagues to have a minimum of eight teams and 75% of those have to be in markets with a population of at least 750,000.

And the owners have to be worth more — at least $15 million — and own at least 35% of the team.

"These are people that are putting money into stadiums into infrastructure to be able to play at that level," Harnetiaux said. "So, for the U.S. Soccer Federation to sanction us at this level, was a real testament to the work that the ownership groups have done to help the league launch."

USL Super League president Amanda Vandervort said in a statement: "This is a tremendous moment for the USL Super League and for women's sports," she said. "Receiving Division One sanctioning further showcases the work that our ownership groups, our clubs, and the league are doing to create a professional environment for top-level talent to compete.

"This is a crucial step toward realizing our vision to be a global leader in women's soccer on and off the field. We cannot wait to see our clubs take the field when we kick off in August 2024."

While this hurdle has been cleared, the teams will look at filling out their coaching staff and rosters. Spokane is well-prepared for that step as its men's team has a full staff and partial roster for its first season for this summer.

But there will be one major difference between the USL Super League and the NWSL: the schedule.

The USL will play on the international calendar while the NWSL will stick to the current U.S. soccer schedule that the men's Major League Soccer also plays.

For the USL, it just increases opportunity, which has been the buzzword of late.

It also differentiates them.

Harnetiaux wanted to know how they could support their players better. The way to do that was to operate on the international schedule.

That calendar is a player's calendar in the sense that it means more rest time, it allows international players to go home to play for their country and it places the league on an international level rather than a national level.

"We are really trying to build for long term, and to make sure that we are building around how the soccer fan views soccer, how the players view soccer, and not just trying to backtrack into a model that really isn't conducive to play or health, either" Harnetiaux said.

MLS and the NWSL operate on the American soccer schedule because of the weather . But Spokane has taken that into account and the last set of home games per year will be in November.

That requires special scheduling tactics, but Harnetiaux said the league is ready to handle it.

"We are working really closely with our partner teams, as well," she said. "Maybe we will go play Fort Lauderdale, if we need to play around Thanksgiving or around the beginning of December."

She said teams in the South are eager to come play in Spokane because of the weather that time of year in the Pacific Northwest.

"We can take advantage of some of those partner teams we have that are in the South," she said.

The season's travel plans have yet to be determined, but the USLSL and the owners have been working closely — meaning monthly meetings over the past year — with Spokane to work out the logistics considering Spokane is the westernmost team in the league.

Dallas/Fort Worth is the closest team to Spokane.

"The travel piece we knew would be a little unique in 2024 until more West Coast teams launch in '25, but we'll figure it out, we'll announce the date soon," Harnetiaux said.

Possible teams include Oakland, California; Tucson, Arizona; and Phoenix.

One of the better aspects of being the first to operate on the West Coast means more initial interest.

"The team is getting a lot of outreach from a lot of professional women," Harnetiaux said. "The excitement is just palpable. While it might be a little extra travel in '24, we're not hearing it from the players that they're upset about that. They're just glad that we're going to have another team on the West Coast."

Spokane is one of the first three teams with a name. Spokane is on pace to announce their head coach, probably around the end of the month, Harnetiaux said.

"We're feeling really good about where we're at," she said.