It’s well known that the history of professional club soccer in the United States has had a turbulent past. Three different top-division leagues have been created over the past two decades, with two of those entities lasting three years and were subject to major financial losses and lack of commitment from owners and sponsors.
Below the top division, there is even more of a spotted past when looking for a stable lower division, especially one that emulates a professional atmosphere and provides a proving ground for not only players looking to make the move to the next level but additionally ones who are trying to get back.
Enter United Women’s Soccer.
Founded in late 2015, the people behind starting the league were looking to bring together clubs that were committed to operating with high standards along with giving opportunities to both current collegiate players and post-grads so that they could continue to grow their game. The league would operate as an amateur-based league in order to accommodate current collegiate players before heading back to school in August, but that would be the only non-professional element of entity.
In the inaugural 2016 season, there were 11 teams split into two geographical conferences with the teams playing a schedule set from mid-May through late-July. Heading into 2018, the league has grown to three-conferences with 22 teams and the league has boasted the likes of former World Cup veterans, MAC Hermann Trophy Finalists (an award given at the end of the NCAA season to the top collegiate soccer player in the country) and a finalist for the Best FIFA Women’s Player.
UWS Commissioner Joe Ferrara has been involved within the game for decades and has seen many ups and downs at the lower levels during his years working in Women’s Soccer. Additionally to him being the Commissioner of the league, he is also the President and General Manager of the New England Mutiny, one of the founding teams of UWS and has been in existence since 1999. But in the two short years of running the league, his expectations have been surpassed greatly.
“When the original clubs came together to form this league, mostly coming from other leagues that had folded, we all had the likeminded goals just to see how things would play out for the first two years and they have been tremendous. Not just from the quality standards that we’ve seen on and off the field but we’ve played 100% of all of our regular season games, which is saying something for a league at this level,” said Ferrara.
Yes, you heard that right. 100% of the games were played. You would think that when a league schedule is set, every team would honor every game on the schedule and compete through the season. It seems elementary, right?
But that hasn’t been the case in years past with other amateur or “Pro-Am” leagues, entities that features a mix of both full professional and amateur teams, in the United States.
Ferrara mentioned in his past that he has seen games where visiting teams would fail to show up to matches due to travel budget issues, or occasions when teams would show up with eight players or that some would field players with skill levels far inferior to the other team, just so that they can make up the numbers and not forfeit a match.
However, within the clauses of UWS, teams are held to a high standard both organizationally and being competitive on the field, and membership for the next season will not be guaranteed if the team doesn’t comply.
With those parameters set, the franchises within the league have taken on the challenge and flourished, not only growing the product on the field but in the community as well. The 2017 UWS Championship was hosted by first year Michigan-based club, Grand Rapids FC Women, and the two-day event drew close to 2,000 fans with an atmosphere that Ferrara noted as “the best he’s ever seen in his 19-years in women’s soccer.”
The reactions of the leagues’ early success has been so positive that bigger organizations and investors are starting to get in on the action as well. The Official Alliance club of the Los Angeles Galaxy, LA Galaxy OC, will field a team in the league for this season, as well as having Real Salt Lake Women, a team that has participated in UWS for the past two seasons, are now affiliated with the newest NWSL franchise, the Utah Royals.
And very recently, the league announced that legendary broadcaster JP Dellacamera along with fellow broadcaster and former goalkeeper of the New York Cosmos, Shep Messing, will operate a team in the state of Connecticut for the coming season. Having big name soccer brands and people behind the ideals of UWS are necessary strides for the continued effort of growing the league profile.
“It’s huge for us,” said Ferrara. “When someone like JP sits down with you and talk about their goals and why they are [running a team], especially with seeing his and Shep’s background within professional soccer in the United States, you get excited.”
In terms of the on-field product itself, there have been some notable figures that have taken to the pitch in UWS action. Recent NWSL Draftees Elizabeth Wenger and Michaela Abam suited up for the Lancaster Inferno and the Colorado Pride respectively in previous seasons. Viviana VillaCorta was part of the Santa Clarita Blue Heat setup this past summer and recently played for the United States in the CONCACAF Under-20 Women’s World Cup Qualification Tournament. Joining her out in California was a pair of World Cup veterans, Carolina Vanegas and Lauren Sesselmann, along with Deyna Castellanos, who was a finalist for the Best FIFA Women’s Player.
“This league is more than just being a summer league for the college player to get some touches. In order to compete and to stay in the league, you need to draw quality players. The level of play has been tremendous so far and players are coming over from other leagues that want to play in our league. And to have the MVP of your league in Deyna [Castellanos], which isn’t a professional league, to be nominated for the FIFA Player of the Year is something that is truly exciting.”
As a dual-purpose for post-collegiate players playing in the league, it is another platform they can use to try and get contracts elsewhere, either in the NWSL or internationally. The MVP of the 2016 season, Krystyna Freda, earned a trial with Champions League side Apollon Limassol right after her strong campaign with New Jersey Copa FC. Lancaster Inferno’s Tesa McKibben utilized the past season to continue getting work in on the ball before returning to Germany. In speaking with Women’s Soccer Zone last summer, she stated that playing with the team presented some interesting challenges where “Thursday nights I usually leave my house between two and three and our practice is at 6:15,” McKibben said, “So I don’t get home until usually around 11:30. I mean it’s worth it because it keeps me on a ball, it surrounds me with killer players and fun players…The drive sucks but it’s all worth it in my eyes.”
While United Women’s Soccer has solidified its status as a well-oiled machine heading into year three, there is always room for improvement. One of those moves is the need to complete the full geographical profile of the league. UWS has a solid presence in the Northeast, Great Lakes and West region but there is a big gap when you look towards the South and Southeast, especially in soccer hotbeds like Florida and Texas. But it is a step that Ferrara is looking into trying to fill quickly in order to maximize the exposure of the league across the board.
“I’ve been involved in several leagues over the course of my career and it is a big puzzle to try and put together. You can’t run a regional conference with two or three teams so you have to be patient and wait for that fourth or fifth team to emerge. But there have been talks and hopefully we can unveil a new conference to fill that region soon.”