Weekly Column: What now for women’s pro soccer?*

*Post updated

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Moving forward? U.S. striker Abby Wambach and other American players may have a harder time figuring out how to move their career ahead with few options looming over the next three years or so (Photo by Staff Photographer Sean Hiller).

Read today’s column here.

*Updated:

The New York Times had more on the timing o a new coach — and possible new women’s league — here.

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Wednesday Kicks: South Bay’s Engen named to WPS Best XI & more

*Rolling Hills Estates’ Whitney Engen was named today to the Women’s Professional Soccer Best XI, along with former LA Sol star Marta.

Engen is a defender for the Western New York Flash, which won the league title last weekend. She was also earlier named WPS Defender of the Year.

Hermosa Beach resident Abby Wambach was also named to the WPS team.

More details here.

*Are there too many international fixture dates? A consortium of European clubs say yes – and are demanding changes.

*Finally, check out this video (shot before Tuesday’s U.S.-Belgium game) wherein former Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan talks about the role ham and cheese sandwiches played in motivating him to learn French:

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Wednesday Kicks: Moves & trade rumors

*According to several different sources, former D.C. United Coach Curt Onalfo is replacing Cobi Jones as an assistant coach at the Galaxy. There’s been no confirmation from the Galaxy and no reply to an e-mail inquiry I made this morning.

*Pasadena City College product Yura Movsisyan looks to be headed to a Russian team from his current Danish club.

*Finally, former LA Sol striker Marta has signed a contract with WPS expansion club the Western New York Flash, which is based in Buffalo, the club announced Tuesday.

It’s the third WPS club in three years for the 25-year-old Brazilian striker, the league MVP in its first two years of operation and the reigning and five-time FIFA World Player of the Year. She played last year for FC Gold Pride in the Bay Area, which won the WPS title and promptly ceased operations, following the Sol into oblivion.

So that’s the kiss of death for the Flash then.

Updated

Four things from the Galaxy camp today:

1. Onalfo’s hiring was confirmed by Coach Bruce Arena.

2. Jack McBean’s signing (see this earlier post for details) was also confirmed. He will join the Galaxy in camp in mid-February once U-17 World Cup qualifying is completed.

3. A 22-year-old Argentine midfielder named Miguel Lopez, who was a teammate of MLS draft pick Paolo Cardozo at Quilmes, will join the Galaxy in camp next week. Brazilians one year, Argentines the next for the Galaxy, I guess.

4. Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts has received his green card, meaning the Galaxy are in compliance with MLS rules regarding international players on the roster (a regular blog reader was fretting about that the other day).

Reporter Phil Collin will have more in the dead tree edition tomorrow.

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Thursday Kicks: Galaxy re-sign Kirovski & more

*The Galaxy announced today they have re-upped midfielder Jovan Kirovski, 34, on a new one-year deal.

His option was initially declined by the club and he has presumably re-signed with a cut in pay, although terms were not announced.

The Escondido native is in his second stint with the club and scored four goals last season in a reserve role.

*Chivas USA announced today they have declined the contract option on striker Giancarlo Maldonado, 28, who joined the club on loan last summer from Mexican First Division club Atlante. The Venezuelan forward found the net just twice in MLS.

*Carson’s Home Depot Center will host a Monday, June 6 Gold Cup game, CONCACF announced today in naming the venues and schedule for next summer’s regional championship.

The confederation had announced previously that the Gold Cup final will be played at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, which will undergo a major renovation in the new year, before the tournament is held.

*Upland resident Lauren Barnes of UCLA has been ranked as the second-ranked defender available in the WPS draft set for Jan. 14.

Updated

*From ESPN:

Last Monday’s Barclays Premier League match, a 1-0 home win for Manchester United over Arsenal, was seen on ESPN2 by an average of 438,000 homes (570,000 viewers) making it the most-watched Premiership telecast on U.S. cable television, according to Nielsen. The telecast outdelivered the previous high – 420,000 homes (526,000 viewers) for Manchester United vs. Chelsea on Saturday, April 3, 2010.

The game had a 0.4 rating. ESPN averages a 0.3 rating for EPL games.

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Tuesday’s column: Press more of a sure thing than women’s game?

i-6d1c85ad0620851291378131feb5c882-pressmug.jpgIt’s that time of year.

It’s time to look back and reassess; it’s time to look forward and plan.

It’s not always easy – even if you’re one of the best female soccer players in the nation like two-time Daily Breeze Player of the Year Christen Press, right, of Palos Verdes Estates.

As if to confirm the uncertainty of women’s soccer in this country, as I wrote this week’s column Monday the Chicago Red Stars of WPS folded citing a lack of investment related to the demise of other teams such as FC Gold Pride. It’s hard not to conclude the WPS dominoes are falling, one by one.

It was against this backdrop that I spoke to Press Monday at the opening of the U.S. Women’s Under-23 national Team about her career so far and her future pro prospects.

Press said that absent a California WPS team she’d like to play in Washington with the Freedom to be near her two sisters next year. The Freedom nearly folded this year. I hope she gets her wish.

Read the column here.

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Monday Kicks: Women’s World Cup draw & more

i-fcf78654447167430d9a9df647bed62a-WC2011draw.jpgAnd the groups are: Next summer’s Women’s World Cup schedule is set after today’s draw in Frankfurt, Germany (AP Photo).

*More details on today’s draw for the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany are here.

Here’s the tournament schedule.

And here’s reaction to the draw in this story from Associated Press writer Nancy Armour:

The United States wound up with what could be the toughest group at next summer’s Women’s World Cup, drawing North Korea, Colombia and Sweden on Monday.

The top-ranked Americans were the last team to qualify for the 16-nation tournament, beating Italy in a home-and-home playoff on Saturday after being stunned by Mexico in the semifinals of regional qualifying. Still, the U.S. is a top seed, as are two-time defending champion Germany, Japan and Brazil. The tournament will be played June 26 to July 17 at nine sites in Germany.

“It’s good because it’s a very strong group. That’s the best thing that could happen to us,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said Monday from the draw in Frankfurt, Germany. “That will be inspiring for us, the fact we’re playing high-ranked teams like Sweden and North Korea and a new team, Colombia, which will be so enthusiastic going into the World Cup.”

Sweden is No. 4 in the latest world rankings while North Korea is sixth. Germany is the only other seeded team to draw two top-10 opponents, with No. 8 France and No. 9 Canada joining Nigeria in Group A.

The U.S. opens June 28 against North Korea, the fourth straight time these nations will meet in the group stage. The Americans beat the North Koreans 3-0 in 1999 and 2003, but tied 2-2 in 2007.

“At the time, we had a very experienced team, now we have a very young, inexperienced team and I am a little bit worried,” North Korea coach Kim Kwang-min said through an interpreter. “Maybe we can win with our spirit. After the last World Cup, we went through a change of generations and it was successful.”

The North Koreans have had impressive results at the youth level, winning the 2006 Under-20 and 2008 Under-17 World Cups. North Korea was the runner-up to the Americans at the 2008 Under-20 World Cup.

“The new team is very young and inexperienced, but very ambitious,” Kim said. “We don’t have high aims, but to do as well as we can.”

The U.S. will face World Cup newcomer Colombia on July 2 and finish group play four days later against Sweden, the team Sundhage played for at the 1991 and ’95 World Cups.

“It’s just a little bit weird before and after,” Sundhage said. “But during the game, it’s
like coaching against any team, actually.”

The Americans won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999 and have finished no worse than third. They also are the defending Olympic champions and have won all but one gold medal since women’s soccer was added to the Olympic program in 1996.

“I’m happy to know who we’re playing,” U.S. defender Ali Krieger said. “It’s definitely going to be tough, but each group has really tough teams, really strong teams. We’re not going to be looking ahead to the semifinal or final, we have to really focus on the group stage. “But because we have such a strong group, we’re going to be very motivated to play well.”

*In other women’s soccer news, the Sol have returned – sort of – and will field pro teams, one in the Bay Area, the other in Orange County, in the largely amateur Women’s Premier Soccer League. Former Sol Coach Abner Rogers will coach the Southern California Sol.

*A belated tip of the hat to Palos Verdes Estates’ Christen Press, who just can’t stop scoring for Stanford in the NCAA Tournament.

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Will Women’s Professional Soccer survive?

Well, OK, perhaps the bigger question is does anyone care?

But for what it’s worth, here’s the story that comes from one of our sister papers in Northern California, the San Jose Mercury News, written by Staff Writers Elliott Almond and Matt Schwab:

SAN JOSE — A year of financial hardship ended optimistically for Women’s Professional Soccer, a league trying to survive a marketplace often unkind to female athletes.

i-9b903fab84ab4a5363af217d14f87fe6-20080117_wps_medium.jpgThe fledging enterprise received a boost last weekend with a near-sellout crowd of 5,228 for its title match won by FC Gold Pride at Pioneer Stadium in Hayward.

Now comes the heavy lifting.

Launched in 2009 during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, WPS saw attendance plummet by 18 percent this year, teams in Los Angeles and St. Louis fold and the departure of league founder Tonya Antonucci as commissioner.

“The second year is traditionally the sophomore slump for all sports leagues — we’ve experienced ours,” said Antonucci, who attributed the attendance decline to the World Cup in South Africa and midseason schedule changes because of St. Louis folding.

WPS limps into its third season with cost-cutting initiatives and a new chief executive determined to outlast a terrible economy and build stability.

It’s a confounding undertaking 38 years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that opened the door for women’s participation in sports. In an era when thousands of girls across the country are playing sports, the question of equity has given way to market forces.

“It is going to take a few years for us to be established as a household name and to get loyal fans, but we might not have enough time,” said Gold Pride’s Ali Riley, the league’s rookie of the year from Stanford.

Sky Blue FC president and CEO Thomas Hofstetter said his team lost $2.9 million last year and expects to lose $2 million more this year. The Gold Pride lost close to $3 million in 2009 but expects losses to be less this year.

Owners hope to break even next year because of recent cost-cutting measures–more than $2 million of which came from the San Francisco-based league office alone. The league’s seven owners are shifting emphasis away from a central hierarchy to focus locally. They hope to attract small investors to form community-run teams by borrowing the successful model of the Green Bay Packers. Officials also are talking to the U.S. Soccer Federation, the national governing body for the sport, about getting subsidized.

“We’re doing this because we believe in it,” said Nancy NeSmith of Los Altos, who owns the Gold Pride with husband Brian. “Everybody is basically making sacrifices, taking pay cuts and just readjusting what we thought (would) be successful.”

The Gold Pride cut its goal for average attendance from 5,000 fans a game to 3,000 this year after moving from Buck Shaw Stadium to the East Bay. The Pride averaged 3,056 a game–a drop of about 20 percent from last year–playing at Castro Valley High and 5,400-seat Pioneer Stadium. (The overall league average was 3,628 per game.)

Despite running away with the title a year after finishing last, the Pride drew more than 3,000 only three times in eight matches at its new home at Cal State East Bay, including a record 4,003 at its regular-season finale this month.

Antonucci, a former Stanford soccer player, remains optimistic her baby will make it without her. She said it was the right time to leave as the league office downsized. In any case, Antonucci departs with three main sponsors signed: Citi, the Coast Guard and MedImmune, a Maryland biotechnology firm. WPS also expects to have an expansion team in Buffalo next season.

The players, whose salaries average $32,000, also are forming a union, It is a development welcomed by Anne-Marie Eileraas, the league’s new chief executive.

“It’s a sign the league is maturing,” she said.

But at a time the sport needs an infusion of support, not even women who have grown up playing soccer seem devoted to it. When Boston Breakers coach Tony DiCicco asks elite players if they’d like to play in WPS, “they raise their hand,” he said. “… How many of you have been to a (WPS) game’? And not many raise their hands.”

The scenario doesn’t surprise Andrea Canales, executive editor of Goal.com.

“Mia Hamm inspired a whole generation to come out and play soccer; not watch soccer,” she said.

Hamm, once America’s top player, became a familiar name with Nike commercials and the wildly successful 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Many believed women’s soccer would explode after the ’99 Cup final at the Rose Bowl drew 90,185. The success led to the 2001 launch of the Women’s United Soccer Association, which disbanded after three seasons and losses of about $100 million.

While the public gets excited for special events such as the Women’s World Cup, it hasn’t translated to long-term commitments.

Riley and Pride teammate Kelley O’Hara enjoyed overflow crowds at Stanford last year when the Cardinal advanced to the College Cup final. The Portland women’s soccer team is one of the most popular on campus, male or female. Connecticut and Tennessee women’s basketball programs have rabid followings.

But the passion hasn’t carried over to pro sports where the WNBA and LPGA haven’t gained traction beyond a niche following. In 14 seasons the WNBA has averaged about 8,000 fans and survives with considerable backing of the NBA.

Now women’s soccer hopes to prove convention wrong. The coming years could prove crucial with an opportunity to showcase the league’s stars at the Women’s World Cup in Germany next summer and the 2012 Olympics in London.

“The product stands alone in terms of its quality,” Antonucci said of the world’s premier women’s league.

But as she leaves the startup, the former Yahoo! executive understands the reality: Sustaining a women’s pro league remains a struggle under the best of circumstances

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Tuesday’s column: the Ronaldinho roundabout (& more)

i-fe9f97beb2c1c36708d083675cc80fbe-ronaldinhonew.jpgRonaldinho: Galaxy target? (AP Photo).

Ronaldinho is coming! Ronaldinho is coming! Ronaldinho is coming!

Or not. (Where he stops, nobody knows).

Today’s column looks at the Galaxy’s recent roster moves and summarizes the recent speculation around AC Milan’s Ronaldinho coming to LA as the club “entertains” the idea of signing a third designated player before the closure of the international trade window next week. Oh, and Becks returns to training with the Galaxy today Wednesday, Galaxy officials said today, correcting what I was told Monday.

In other news today:

*Continuing with the theme of speculation, England’s tabloid Daily Mirror notes the resignation Monday of Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill and immediately concludes without any attribution whatsoever that U.S. Coach Bob Bradley is the favorite to succeed him (because Villa’s owner is American) and that he will bring son Michael Bradley and the Galaxy’s Landon Donovan to the club if he takes the job. Quite a leap.

*Bradley will be at the helm of the U.S. team against Brazil at 5 p.m. tonight in New York (live on ESPN2 and Univision) where Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez could make his international debut.

There are eight Californians on the roster including Anderlecht’s Sacha Kljestan, Galasgow Rangers’ Maurice Edu and Pachuca’s Herculez Gomez.

*Other local players involved in internationals this week include Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, called into Jamaica’s camp for the Wednesday game against Trinidad & Tobago, while Pasadena City College product Yura Movsisyan looks likely to make his debut for Armenia Wednesday against Iran. Chivas USA’s Michael Umana also plays for Costa Rica Wednesday against Paraguay.

*Not to be left out, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena and former Chivas USA coach Preki will be inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame before the U.S.-Brazil game.

*Finally, Rolling Hills Estates’ Whitney Engen, a rookie defender with the Chicago Red Stars of WPS added the ACC Women’s Athlete of the Year award last week to her burgeoning trophy cabinet, after previously being named the top female college soccer player in the nation by winning the 2010 Honda Sports Award.

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Monday Catch-up: Galaxy, England, Mexico & more

* Van Nuys’ Tristan Bowen, 19, scored his first-ever Galaxy goal as a depleted LA beat a depleted Boca Juniors Sunday at Home Depot Center. Game story here.

Galaxy lineup: Josh Saunders, Alex Cazumba, Gregg Berhalter (A.J. DeLaGarza 64′), Omar Gonzalez (Yohance Marshall 46′), Sean Franklin; Chris Birchall (Bryan Jordan 64′), Eddie Lewis (Todd Dunivant 72′), Michael Stephens, Chris Klein; Tristan Bowen, Clint Mathis (Mike Magee 80′).

Updated: Yeah, Michael Stephens sort of nudged the ball on into the path of Tristan Bowen for the goal, he didn’t whiff on it (although I can see where someone viewing it in person might think that). Incidentally, anyone else encouraged by Bowen’s performances? In limited minutes this year he has an assist and a goal and let’s face it the Galaxy need all the offensive help they can get with Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan in the U.S. camp.

Highlights:

*England and Mexico meet at noon on Fox Soccer Channel. Preview here.

*The U.S. faces the Czech Republic at 5 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN and Galavision. I’ll have more on the U.S. World Cup preparations in Tuesday’s column.

*Former LA Sol defender Christie Shaner, perhaps best known for suffering a broken leg last year in her WPS debut, scored a 90th-minute winner from a corner kick as Ajax America beat the San Diego WFC SeaLions 2-1 at Nansen Field on the Palos Verdes Peninsula Sunday in the WPSL opener for both teams.

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