Ann Killion
Thursday September 23rd, 2010

The official weather report calls for sunshine on Sunday in Hayward, Calif., site of the championship game for Women's Professional Soccer.

The unofficial forecast: dark clouds, swirling speculation and torrents of doubt.

Sunday's game is the finale of a tumultuous second year for the struggling league. The WPS lost two original teams -- the Los Angeles Sol and St. Louis Athletica -- in the past eight months. The league has cut costs, eliminated its national marketing department and dramatically restructured. On Sunday, commissioner Tonya Antonucci -- the smart, sensible driving force behind the women's league -- will step down.

Antonucci disputes reports that she was forced out by team owners.

"This was a personal decision," she said Wednesday. "I've thrown myself into this for six years and I'm very proud of my success."

This summer, league owners decided to restructure the league and eliminate the commissioner's position after Antonucci announced her decision to step down. WPS will now have a CEO to handle day-to-day business. All national revenues will be funneled into the existing teams. The move is clearly a bid for survival.

How will the league function without a cohesive center and with seven separate priority lists? It was the owners who voted to extend the season into September, a move they may now regret. The additional home games drove down average attendance; though the total number of fans through the turnstiles remained steady, the move created the negative perception of a major drop-off.

And the lengthening of the season puts the championship game on a September Sunday crowded with NFL games, pennant races and -- most important -- youth soccer. The 11:30 a.m. Pacific kickoff -- the TV time slot available -- all but guarantees that soccer-playing kids and teens will be busy competing in their own tournaments.

While others see problems, Antonucci remains optimistic about the league's ability to succeed. She cites a rise in local sponsorships, the signing of a new major national sponsor (Citi) and the likely addition of a new team in Buffalo.

Year Three is pivotal. The WPS' precursor, the WUSA, folded after its third season. And Year Three is particularly huge for WPS. Next summer the most high-profile event in the sport -- the Women's World Cup -- will be held in Germany. While the tournament will pose logistical problems for WPS, which will have to give up players to qualifying games and World Cup play, it also provides an incredible platform for the league. The following year, the London Olympics will provide more global exposure.

"WPS will be on the global stage," Antonucci said. "The World Cup will be a showcase for our athletes."

One of those athletes is Marta, who will be playing in Sunday's championship game. The four-time FIFA World Player of the Year has turned the WPS into her personal playground. A year ago, she led the Sol to the best regular-season record. She joined the FC Gold Pride after the Sol disbanded, and led that team straight into the championship game, winning the league MVP along the way.

A breathtaking, charismatic performer packed into a petite figure, the Brazilian is also optimistic about the league's future.

"We believe things will work out," she said through a translator. "We want to make this happen and establish the best league."

FC Gold Pride is a microcosm of what the league offers. The team includes Marta, the best player in the world. It has U.S. national team members like Shannon Boxx -- driven to hone their skills between national team outings. There are older players like Tiffeny Milbrett, who held on for six years after the WUSA collapsed until another league was established.

And the Gold Pride includes dynamic young players just out of college -- like last year's Hermann Trophy winner (for the most outstanding collegiate athlete), Kelly O'Hara, and this year's WPS Rookie of the Year, Ali Riley -- who will likely be future fixtures on their respective national teams (O'Hara for the U.S., Riley for New Zealand).

Boxx has had three teams fold underneath her: the WUSA's New York Power in 2003, the Sol in January and Athletica in May. She knows all about the dark clouds surrounding her sport. But she's staying sunny and positive.

"I wake up every day and I get to play soccer," Boxx said. "We just want to continue playing."

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