LOCALS: Waves make waves in women's game

It's not Women's Professional Soccer, but it is pro women's soccer, and that's a start -- for the Orange County Waves and a good number of their players. Where it leads is paramount: No less than the future of the women's game in America is at stake.

That's the starting point for the Waves, the most direct descendent of the great but short-lived L.A. Sol and a club that aspires to provide a foundation for the Westward expansion of WPS -- in whatever form that might take -- as the third-year league plots for the uncertainty ahead.

How that will play out is a mystery, but the Waves plan to be involved, and they've spent the last few months building a worthy résumé in the Women's Premier Soccer League, one of two national semipro/amateur women's leagues playing in the WPS's shadow.

Led by former Sol head coach Abner Rogers, the Waves have made it a point to proceed as professionals in every way -- and yes, everyone except a quintet with college eligibility is paid. It's made an impact on the field.

The Waves (11-1-2) won the WPSL's Pacific-South Division and this weekend is in the Bay Area, at Dublin High School, for the Pacific Conference finals. They take on Marin County's North Bay FC Wave (9-1-4) in a semifinal Saturday -- San Diego SeaLions (11-2-1) and Bay Area Breeze (9-2-3) play in the other semi -- and Sunday's winner heads to next week's WPSL final four in Lisle, Ill.

Rogers bids for the championship with a squad featuring five players with WPS experience (Mission Viejo's Kiki Bosio, Kristina Larsen and Jenny Anderson-Hammond, Arcadia's Brittany Klein and Czech-born midfielder Vendula Strnadova) and another selected in this year's WPS draft (Buena Park's Tanya Taylor, from UC Irvine). Larsen is sidelined because of a broken collar bone after scoring four goals in her first five games.

NOT WPS: The performances have been good, but let's be clear. The range of competition in the WPSL varies greatly, and only the Breeze and SeaLions have given the Waves much of a game. The playoffs will be much tougher: The Chicago Red Stars, one of four clubs shed through WPS's first two seasons, has already qualified for (and will play host to) the league's final weekend. The New York Fury, a virtual WPS side affiliated with the Philadelphia Independence, failed to get through the Eastern Conference bracket.

“The level of play is definitely lower than WPS,” said Klein, a central midfielder who played for the Red Stars in 2009 and the Washington Freedom last season but chose not to pursue a WPS roster spot this year. “We still have some girls that are WPS level. So although our competition for the most part is definitely notches down, we try to still maintain a high level.”

Says Rogers: “Oh, it's a drop. It's definitely a drop” from WPS to WPSL. “You don't have five or six foreign players. Those players make a big difference. They raise the level of competition in every training session. Everyone knows Marta, but to have [former Sol stars] Aya [Miyama] and Camille [Abily] ... that's what makes the difference.”

The WPSL, in the grand scheme, is a developmental league, and many of the Waves -- including most who have played in WPS -- are looking to play at the highest level.

“This is a great environment,” Klein said. “Although we're playing in a semiprofessional league, we feel like this is a steppingstone to that WPSL level. ... It's a really great environment where you get the feel of professionalism.”

PURELY PRO: The arrival of the Waves -- and of the Dublin-based Breeze, the Waves' partner -- has turned the WPSL's western wing topsy-turvy. Many of the best players flocked to the new, professional clubs, and longtime powers such as Rolling Hills Estates' Ajax America and Sacramento's California Storm faded into the background. Both went 5-6-3 and, for the first time in memory, missed the playoffs.

Forward Shannon Cross, whose nine goals lead the Breeze, understands. She played six seasons for Ajax America, but when the Waves lured the club's head coach, Brian Boswell, to become Rogers' assistant, she followed. So did midfielder Dani Bosio, Kiki's older sister, and defender Sabrina DeMonte.

“I loved being part of Ajax. That will always be in my heart ...,” said Cross, a former USC star from Manhattan Beach who grew up in youth club Fram, of which Ajax is an extension, and began playing for Boswell when she was 12. “The three of us, we were deciding what to do and said let's get one more good year in together. Good friends. Brian's a big part of it.”

So was a chance to do be something she'd always wanted to be.

“I was looking to continue to play. I just love to play -- I've always loved to play,” Cross said. “And it was a good opportunity. It was something to say, you know, I've played professionally.”

At 28, Cross has no illusions that a career in a bigger, better league awaits -- “If it was in the books, I'd love to be able to say I could do that,” she says -- and she's not getting rich. But combine a little cash with the proper approach, and it's a big deal.

“We're not WPS,” Rogers said. “We don't have the funds to be truly professional. ... They get very little money. And there's continuity. Some of these WPSL teams don't train, or they train once a week. The complaints you hear is they've got only 10 players training. We're out here with 18, 20 players three, four times a week.”

Cross, who coaches in club soccer and runs Harvard-Westlake School's powerhouse girls soccer program, says the money helps.

“It's a short-term contract, just the summer right now,” she said. “I'm lucky. I'm local. I can drive down, I can still work. ... The money wasn't a big factor for me. I think we have a bunch of girls from out of state, and they're able to support themselves during the summer, and host families are a factor in that, as well.”

ALL ABOUT MONEY: The future of professional women's soccer in America is tied to the dollar, of course, and WPS has struggled from day one despite an approach far more economical than its better-heeled predecessor, the Women's United Soccer Association, which faded away after its third season eight years ago.

The economy hasn't helped investment and sponsorship, and there haven't been much in the way of marketing funds. The failure of four teams, including the Sol and reigning champion FC Gold Pride, has left the league with six clubs, all on the East Coast.

The regional approach makes sense, and what Rogers, the Waves, the Breeze and others in WPSL want is to be involved, to provide the groundwork for Western and Central divisions -- something like the WPSL now, except with a more professional approach.

“We hope between the two leagues, that they can come together,” said Rogers, who guided the Sol to a 12-3-5 mark and into WPS's title game in their lone season two years ago. “WPS definitely needs to grow, and we definitely know we need to grow in the West. ... I think all the heads need to be put together. Egos need to be put aside. and the economy has to play a factor in this. And we have to rethink what our original plans were. It's not working, and there's many people struggling out there.

“For women's soccer, we just need to take some baby steps. We're still in its infancy -- we have to realize we're still in our infancy. I think the players I've worked with over the years will understand that they're not going to be making $50,000 and $45,000 for X amount of months and they need to supplement their income with other things. And I think they'd be willing to do that.”

As long as everything's professional, that is.