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USL W League comes to California, part of grand plans for growing women’s soccer

We speak to W League president Amanda Vandervort on launch.

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

The USL announced the arrival of the W League to California on Thursday, establishing the NorCal Division, featuring eight teams — Academica SC, California Storm, Marin FC, The Olympic Club, Pleasanton RAGE and San Francisco Glens, Oakland Soul and Stockton Cargo.

The 2023 season will be the second in this new iteration of the W League, a developmental league primarily made up of NCAA players on their summer breaks. To compare to the men’s side, the W League is the rough equivalent of the USL League Two, which has provided short-term high level competition dating back to 1995.

In discussing the expansion of the W League to California, Amanda Vandervort, president of the USL W League and upcoming USL Super League, emphasized the niche the NorCal Division is trying to serve, both for players and local communities.

“The opportunity to further expand the W League to this part of the country is a gift,” Vandervort told Angels on Parade in an interview on Thursday. “The history of soccer in Northern California, from the players to the people who work in the game — it’s a watershed moment for us, for the W League to truly be national now.”

“The divisions are really important to us because we really do believe in managing travel for players and ensuring that their conditions facilitate elite competition like the highest level that they can be and so, minimizing travel but amplifying local rivalry for us, for the fans is a core focus on both ends,” Vandervort continued. “And then you can connect with the local sponsors and the local media, and the local partners then, in a way that’s truly rooted in community, which is what the USL is.”

Vandervort, herself a former NCAA soccer player, at the University of Wyoming, and NCAA head coach, at New York University, has extensive experience in a variety of roles around the sport. She spent nearly a decade at MLS in several executive roles before moving to international professional footballers organization FIFPRO, focusing on the women’s side of the game, and then being tapped to spearhead the women’s soccer footprint at the USL.

The new venture and investment into women’s soccer by the USL is years in the making. In addition to the W League, there are plans to launch a fully professional women’s league, the USL Super League, in the fall of 2023, but the organization has also been working hard to build a youth academy set-up on the girls side alongside a similar commitment to a boys academy system, with the eventual goal for girls and women to have a full pipeline from youth soccer to the professional level.

Vandervort notes having done the work on the boys’/mens’ side, they are confident they can do the same for the girls’/womens’ ecosphere.

“I think the infrastructure that we’ve built both through our pre-professional side on the men’s side, with our academy of our boys to lead to, in the pro game League One and obviously the Championship, give us the both the confidence and the foundation to know that this is possible within the USL ecosystem on the girls and women’s side as well. And so, yeah, the national footprint is, I think an indication of that infrastructure and of that opportunity that we have and that we believe in,” she said.

Vandervort said a stated goal for the USL’s venture into girls and women’s soccer was to help support the U.S. Women’s National Team, not just at the senior level but for talented youth players who could use a greater challenge between youth club and full professional levels. And as evidence of a disparity between the men’s and women’s game, while the majority of the players in the inaugural season of the W League in 2022 were college players much like in the men’s USL League Two, 69 percent of the total player pool in the W League, roughly 20 percent of the W League players were youth players who had not yet begun to play college ball, a stark contrast to the men’s circuit. In that way, the W League looks like it can provide additional opportunities to young women players who have the talent to compete at a higher level.

Furthermore, one of the knock-on effects on the men’s side of the sport with the USL is the number of non-American internationals who have improved their games and their national team prospects playing in the USL’s various levels, particularly players hailing from Concacaf nations. Vandervort admits this is firmly in mind for building out their women’s circuits as well.

“We have been very forthright that our interest is to be part of the global game,” she said. “And I think that our American players are going to get better by playing with better talent from around the world. And so if we can be part of the professionalization of the world game, the world’s game on the women’s side, we’re proud to do that. I was at FIFPRO before I was here as the chief women’s football officer and I saw the development of the game around the world and the investment not only in the Caribbean, but in Europe and other regions around the world. And yeah, I think we have a lot to do to stay ahead of the curve in the U.S., but I think we also have a part to play in the growth and development of the game more broadly.”

With the new W League just one year old and the league finally going national with the likes of the NorCal Division joining for 2023, it will take time to see the effects of the USL’s efforts to develop women’s soccer, but they’ve already seen 19 players turn pro in leagues around the world after playing in the W League.

But for an organization that’s made huge strides the past several years in terms of professionalizing and filling out the soccer pyramid in the United States while retaining a policy of keeping clubs firmly connected and rooted in their local communities, it looks like Thursday’s announcement of USL W League expansion really is just the beginning for a new chapter in women’s soccer in this country.

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