U.S. Soccer renews WPS' top-tier status

Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) appears to have won a big reprieve from extinction.

U.S. Soccer's board of directors agreed Monday evening to continue its sanction of the WPS with Division 1 status, its highest for a professional league, despite it only having five teams for 2012. Finalization of the decision hinges on WPS owners agreeing to certain disclosed terms stipulated by U.S. Soccer.

"After a positive discussion, the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors approved a plan to sanction WPS as a Division 1 professional league in 2012, subject to certain conditions," said U.S. Soccer, through spokesperson Neil Buethe, in a written statement Monday. "Once the Board receives confirmation from WPS that all five teams agree to those conditions, U.S. Soccer will issue a formal announcement."

A WPS spokesperson said the league would not comment Monday night, and team officials did not immediately return requests for comment. Division 1 status is important for the WPS, as it will allow the league to continue attracting top professional international players, such as Brazil's Marta, and members of the U.S. national team such as Abby Wambach. The WPS is expected to act quickly in the wake of U.S. Soccer's decision and help make it final.

WPS players reacted on Twitter in the wake of U.S. Soccer's statement.

"I'm very excited to be a @BostonBreakers 4 2012!" former U.S. national team player Leslie Osborne said on Twitter. "I'm even more excited 4 the opportunity for others and the potential for@womensprosoccer!"

Lianne Sanderson, a former member of the England national team who has also played for Philadelphia, tweeted her optimism: "Absolutely amazing stuff :) I can't wait 2 find out more :) Jumping for joy xx."

This is not the first waiver granted by U.S. Soccer to the WPS. The league has operated with fewer than the eight teams stipulated by U.S. Soccer's professional league standards. WPS played in 2011 with six teams, then became a five-league team in the offseason when the magicJack franchise was terminated after disputes with owner Dan Borislow.

Despite the previous waivers, it was not a given that U.S. Soccer would again grant Division 1 status to the WPS. At the board's regular meeting on Nov. 20, the league wasn't immediately granted another waiver, but instead given 15 days to find a sixth team. WPS has said several times in recent months that it has multiple expansion prospects, but had no franchise immediately ready to launch. Nor was the league prepared to reconcile with Borislow, who has filed legal action in an effort to reinstate his team.

Instead, WPS made its case to be sanctioned with five teams, citing growth since the Women's World Cup and expansion interest.

The WPS has crossed a major hurdle with the Division I sanctioning, but the board's decision does not guarantee the league will be ready for the 2012 season or that U.S. national stars such as Abby Wambach and Hope Solo will participate. The league is still in litigation with Borislow, and most U.S. national team players have not signed contracts for next season, when they would be unavailable much of the summer if the team qualifies for the 2012 Olympics.

WPS launched in 2009 with seven teams, one short of U.S. Soccer's standards, and ambitions that had been scaled back from the days of the WUSA, which collapsed in 2003 after three seasons.

After its first season, WPS reached eight teams, getting Philadelphia and Atlanta to replace its departing Los Angeles club. But the league dropped to seven a few weeks into the season when investors suddenly cut off funding to the team in St. Louis, forcing its talented roster, which included players such as Solo, Shannon Boxx and Aya Miyama, to be dispersed.

The league was teetering after the 2010 season. Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who had worked since the WUSA's demise to get WPS off the ground, stepped down. League champion FC Gold Pride, which had taken over Brazilian star Marta's massive contract, folded. The Chicago Red Stars also dropped out of the league, resurfacing in the lower-tier WPSL. The Washington Freedom, which had maintained operations at some level since the WUSA debuted in 2001, was put up for sale.

WPS managed to work its way back up to six teams for the 2011 season with the addition of the Western New York Flash and the sale of the Freedom to Borislow, who moved the team to South Florida and renamed it magicJack after the Internet phone he invented.

League CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas stepped down after the 2011 season, wanting to spend more time with her family. The league hired Jennifer O'Sullivan, a former vice president of the Arena Football League, to replace her in September.

O'Sullivan helped to restart the AFL after a bankruptcy and a season of inactivity. Last week, she once again had to make the case for her league's survival.

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