Making the Goal: How the USL is Opening Doors for Female Athletes
Generating new opportunities for athletes is always at the top of the United Soccer League's (USL) radar—especially female youth athletes. Currently, if you were a girl's soccer player interested in a pro career path, the opportunities were virtually non-existent.
Organized women's soccer leagues were introduced in the United States in the early 1950s. The Craig Club Girls Soccer League, which consisted of four teams out of St. Louis, Missouri, played 15-game seasons in 1950 and 1951. However, it wasn't until 1972's Title IX gender equality legislation that brought more women and young girls to play the sport. Finally, in 1995, the first national women's league was created.
The drive and passion for sport across the country drove USL to grow women's soccer opportunities overall. With the 2020 pandemic impacting all sports, there was time to take a step back and see how this league could change for the better.
Go Big or Go Home
Coming in 2023, the USL announced a Super League for women, which will provide a full pathway from youth to professional. "For many female soccer players, our goal was to play at the collegiate level as it's so hard to make it pro," stated Marie Fitzgerald, youth soccer coach, and former college soccer player. Marie knows what it takes to go from a youth program to a collegiate career playing D3 soccer for Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"[The announcement] creates more lanes for women to play soccer at a level past college," said Fitzgerald.
Previously, if you wanted to get paid to play soccer, you have two routes: one through a National Team or the NWSL. There was no USL path, and to make a national team or the NWSL, you had to be a Carli Lloyd. For example, women who wanted to go pro could take the route of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). However, you were not guaranteed a spot if you made the draft. In 2016, Hero Sports cited that out of the 145 players who declared for the draft, 40 players were selected and only 30 received a roster spot. USL adding a Super League now creates additional opportunities for all to go pro.
"Women deserve a chance to follow their dreams, no matter the level," states Fitzgerald. The Super League’s structure and compensation will be consistent with the men in the spirit of ensuring equality across all sports.
Starting in 2022, USL will provide a complete path for a soccer career. Starting at Girls' Super Y League, followed by Girls USL Academy, and finally the women's pre-professional USL W League.
The USL's girls' and women's pathway is estimated to have more than 4,000 players competing on more than 250 teams across the Super Y League, USL Academy, and USL W League. With the addition of the Super League in 2023, these numbers will continue to rise. Betsy Haugh, USL Director of Women's Soccer Operations is thrilled with the latest developments. "With more professional soccer teams, there are more opportunities for girls and women to envision a future working in the sport – as a GM, as a broadcaster, on the partnership teams, or in a myriad of other executive roles. We are committed to helping create these opportunities and to showing that a career in soccer, both on and off the field, can be a reality for more and more people,” stated Haugh.
"When young players see that there are more opportunities, it helps them dream bigger and fuels their desire to continue playing the sport that they love," says Betsy Haugh, USL Director of Women's Soccer Operations.
For Fitzgerald, it's allowing more opportunity for the girls she coached, aged 9-12, to shine. "Many of the girls I coached dream of becoming Alex Morgan or Carli Lloyd, most players who are on the National team, which is a great goal to have to make it to the National team, but the likelihood of that happening is not very high," Fitzgerald says. “Now that USL has created more opportunities for girls to play soccer post-college, this allows for young athletes to see more people like them, doing what they love as a career.“
The USL W League, starting in 2022, just announced its first 16 member clubs, and they estimate more than 30 teams to take the field next year. These changes are set to inspire many youth athletes to take their pursuits to the highest levels.