U.S. women's soccer team set to play Canada

FRISCO, Texas — The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team doesn't have any trouble drawing a crowd.

It has won two World Cups since 1991 and four gold medals out of five since 1996 at the summer Olympics.

A sold-out crowd is expected to pack Toyota Stadium for today's 2014 opener against Canada. Less than 1,000 tickets remained unsold Thursday afternoon.

But while it's clear women's soccer has made a space for itself among sports fans, attempts at top-level professional leagues have failed.

"When they're all in red, white and blue, everybody comes out to see them," said Jeff Kassouf, a producer for NBCSports.com. "You put one in red and one in blue, and the interest just significantly decreases."

Many of the players who take the field for the U.S. and for Canada will be on display this summer during the second season of the National Women's Soccer League.

It's the third attempt at a women's professional league since 2001, and the league hopes to succeed where its predecessors did not.

The first top-level professional league, the Women's United Soccer Association, tried to capitalize on America's victory at the 1999 World Cup. It was a bit too ambitious from the start, and the league was crippled by debt and closed after three seasons.

The second attempt, Women's Professional Soccer, fell apart amid organizational dysfunction. It, too, lasted three seasons and folded in 2012.

NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey stressed the "slow and steady" pace in building a foundation for the newest league. The ambition to grow is there, Bailey said, but not faster than the league can sustain.

"Our goal is to grow this sport," Bailey said, "grow the interest and find communities that are interested in women's soccer, and take a slow and steady pace. Just because you build it, people will not necessarily come."

The NWSL has reason to be optimistic.

The U.S., Mexican and Canadian soccer federations are paying the salaries of national team players. That cost-saving measure lifts a large burden off the shoulders of ownership.

For the coming season, Bailey said, the USSF will pay the salaries of 27 players, the Canadian federation will pay for 16, and the Mexican federation will pay for seven.

Two of the nine teams — the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash, an expansion team for 2014 — are owned by the same group that runs their MLS counterparts, the Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo.

That relationship allows for a strong, pre-existing infrastructure complete with facilities and staff. The overhead costs are far more manageable under those conditions as opposed to starting from scratch

Portland was the league's greatest success story last year. It not only won the league's first championship, but averaged more than 13,000 fans per game and turned a profit.

"Portland made a ton of money last year, and Houston is going to make money this year," said Richard Farley, who covers women's soccer for NBCSports.com. "They'll be able to leverage their MLS resources without significant commitment. They control the facilities, and that's traditionally been the debilitating thing."

The alignment with an MLS club was a tremendous draw for Randy Waldrum, who left his job coaching national power Notre Dame to lead the Houston Dash in its first season.

Waldrum, 57, won two national titles at Notre Dame.

Waldrum said he was approached to coach teams in the WUSA and WPS, but he passed on both opportunities. The facilities, infrastructure and chance to return to Texas, though, were too good to pass up in the NWSL.

"I spoke to (USSF president) Sunil Gulati before I took the job," Waldrum said. "He couldn't guarantee we'd be here in 10 years, but he was able to say it was much more stable. They invested a lot into year two and year one, and I think if more MLS teams become involved, the league will really take off."

Waldrum said the NWSL offers more parity and stronger top-to-bottom competition than international leagues. Six teams finished the first NWSL season with 30 or more points, and three tied for first with 38.

The NWSL features most of the continent's biggest stars, including U.S. internationals Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, who left French club Lyon earlier this month to play a full season in the U.S.

Hurdles still exist for those teams not aligned with MLS squads.

New Jersey's Sky Blue FC, for example, averaged 1,600 fans and had a season-high attendance of 3,002.

A number of teams failed to turn a profit, although Bailey was unable to specify which teams or how much money was lost.

The sheen of a new league will have worn off in the second year. But the NWSL has had far more time to generate interest, promote and market itself, and capitalize on various social media to create buzz.

As long as the NWSL holds onto its partnership with the trio of national federations, Farley is optimistic the league will play into a fourth season - a benchmark neither of its predecessors reached.

"As long as the federations feel this is a worthwhile investment for their money," Farley said, "I think this league can survive."

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