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Women's soccer league takes shape in Mexico with backing of Liga MX

Mexico attempts to block a free kick against Colombia in the 2015 Women's World Cup. The match ended in a draw and Mexico failed to advance out of the group. Matt Kryger/USA TODAY Sports

After years of promises and false starts, Mexico will officially field a pro women's soccer league in 2017, owned and operated by the country's top men's competition, the Liga MX. Like it's male counterpart, the league will be called Liga MX Femenil (Women's Liga MX).

During the owners meeting held earlier this month at the league's headquarters in Toluca, Liga MX approved the creation of the parallel women's league, with the goal of strengthening the national team, expanding its market among women and eventually attracting top foreign talent to Mexico. The first season, however, will ban the signing of non-Mexican players in an effort to bolster national scouting.

Despite previous attempts to start women's pro leagues in Mexico, this will be the first time that the highly popular Liga MX fully backs a female version.

“We tried to start a league back in 2007 or 2008,” said Monica Gonzalez, the former Mexico national team captain who is now a broadcaster and women's soccer advocate. “It didn't work, and there wasn't enough money,” recalled Gonzalez.

The current sanctioned first division league, dubbed the Superliga Femenil (Female Super League) has struggled to gain traction with fans and advertisers as most of their clubs have proven to be financially unstable. It has not yet been made clear whether Liga MX will somehow incorporate Superliga as part of its new venture.

Founded in 2007 and intended to professionalize women's soccer in the country, Superliga has failed to attract top sponsors, fans and media attention from the get-go. Despite occasionally fielding teams associated with the men's league, such as Chivas (whose women's team won the league in 2009, two years after the most recent men's league title), there is little hope that the Superliga will endure an almost certain exodus of talent and attention from its more organized opposition.

Aside from now definitively losing any squad associated to the men's first division, Superliga club owners will have to compete with the likes of Televisa, TV Azteca and Grupo Imagen, all formidable media companies that will own teams in Liga MX Femenil. That will mean a push for higher salaries and even less media attention hurled their way once the new league gets going. Even then, most of the players in the national team pool have never played in Superliga or did so briefly. A grand total of zero players on Mexico's roster to face last year's Women's World Cup, for instance, plied their trade domestically. The initial push for local talent will also likely be daunting, as the Liga MX Femenil announced an initial ban on non-Mexican players.

“For now, we will not have foreign players,” said Enrique Bonilla, the league's president. “Every team must have an under-23 team, as well as an under-17 category.”

Bonilla also mentioned that Mexican-American players, at one point the core of the Mexican national team, can sign but must be regulated in accordance to “the league's rules.” Players under that category eligible to sign are those who either play for the Mexican national team, or are not yet cap-tied by either the USA or Mexico. Bonilla also made it clear that eventually, every franchise in the men's pyramid must have a women's team as a requirement for first division play.

Participating teams will have a short time to field their initial squad. The league plans to kick off in April with an introductory Cup competition, while the first official league season will be played in September 2017, roughly coinciding with the men's Apertura schedule. In due time, the league implied it will allow and regulate the signing of foreign players.

With many current national team stars playing abroad, the league will also have to decide whether it wants to import its top players back to Mexico. “I'd say stay (abroad) but when the league gets going, find a way to come back,” says Gonzalez. “The league needs to give their best players a good salary, whatever they're making there, they need to find a way to pay them more in Mexico.”

Bonilla mentioned that teams have until early next year to declare what stadiums and practice facilities they'll use. No television rights deals were announced, though all three major Mexican TV companies will own teams in the league, nor was it confirmed whether all 18 current men's teams would field a women's squad during the initial Cup. Despite the initial foibles that the league will attempt to eventually work out, the move was hailed by current and former Mexican stars as well as women's soccer aficionados in general.

“It's very exciting,” said Paola Kuri, a women's soccer advocate in Mexico who runs her own non-profit, Fútbol Sin Género. “It's really important that this platform exists and I'm full of happiness that future generations of girls in Mexico will be able to have professional careers in soccer.”

Challenges, however, remain despite the initial enthusiasm. The rapid turnaround time between the announcement and the initial start time will likely make it difficult for teams to scout and field competitive groups from the get-go. “It took the (Colombian women's league) eight to ten months to set up every single partnership that they have to get the thing going there,” said Gonzalez.

Another issue that experts warn could cripple the nascent league's opportunity at attracting fans and achieving cultural crossover in a nation that still has trouble with equality.

“It'll be hard to scout and generate a youth system, that costs money,” said Kuri. “The cultural issue is clear. If people don't want to consume this product, if they don't give equal opportunity a chance, it'll be impossible [to make the league successful],” she continued.

The relative lack of female backroom staff and executives will also likely be a problem. Though Mexico currently employs a small group of female referees to work in the men's game, breakthroughs in coaching and executive positions have been severely lacking.

“We have to allow women to take up these positions,” said Kuri. “The federation and the league need to involve them. Excluding people from positions because of their gender, whether it's men or women, doesn't work. But we need to prepare women to become coaches, trainers and more.”

Despite the potential speed bumps, the fact remains that Mexico's most successful sports organization will be spearheading the project, and that alone gives fans and observers an inkling as to whether success is more likely. It would seem to be, as Gonzalez notes, the best possible time to start the league given recent events.

Following the long tenure of former national team coach Leonardo Cuellar and the emergence of top-tier stars such as Charlyn Corral, Kenti Robles and Maribel Dominguez, Mexico's women's soccer program has likely never been so robust. In 2016 alone, both the U-17 and U-20 squads made the quarterfinals of their respective World Cup competitions. A year earlier, the senior team made history by playing in its second consecutive FIFA Women's World Cup, the first time El Tri had ever achieved that feat since the competition began in 1991.

“Now is a good time to start the league, and to do it right,” said Gonzalez. “Any time you're supporting women's soccer, you're supporting a social change. The moment Mexico turns to realize the true potential of the women's game, it's going to take off.”