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Commissioner Tonya Antonucci's exit puts WPS in owners' hands


For the past six years, commissioner Tonya Antonucci has served as the face of Women's Professional Soccer and the rebuilding of women's soccer in the United States. However, with Monday's announcement that Antonucci will step down after the 2010 season, WPS must move in a new direction.

The inception of what eventually became WPS began when U.S. soccer legend Julie Foudy tapped Antonucci on the shoulder at a 2004 Stanford soccer reunion and told her a leader was needed to reincarnate the WUSA -- a challenge Antonucci could not turn down.

Without Antonucci, WPS will generate business resolutions collectively among board members. She will still have a nonvoting spot on the Board of Governors, but the days of her rallying sponsors and TV deals are no more. Antonucci said she enjoys the startup phase of businesses, and with WPS transitioning to the next stage of advancement, turning control over to the owners makes sense. In addition, Antonucci could simply use some time off.

"In light of that, combined with some incredibly taxing years of dedication to this over six years, I just felt like this is a good time for their new direction and it will be a good time for me to move on to a new challenge," Antonucci said.

WPS will continue its transition after various league staff cuts and decentralization. WPS general counsel Anne-Marie Eileraas will take over as CEO and Melanie Fitzgerald has been installed as new COO, but the Board of Governors will have the most say in league matters.

Make no mistake, Antonucci will be missed. Her legacy is one of accomplishment in everything from lining up founding partners such as Puma to a TV deal with Fox Soccer Channel. Her ability to manage various personalities around WPS helped guide the league.

"My leadership style was a mix of, at times, building from consensus around an idea and maybe the best idea wins of course, but driving people to a decision," Antonucci said. "Sometimes it takes consensus and sometimes it takes 'make a decision and move on' and have the ability to make a decision and get people behind it."

The new management structure will lack that authoritative voice. Conflicting opinions will exist on nearly every topic, so who will ultimately drive decisions as Antonucci did?

After the WUSA folded, any revival of professional women's soccer in the U.S. was viewed as a lost cause, but Antonucci has been the primary force in disproving that. Now, the onus to grow the league falls on the owners. Finding nirvana among that many voices (one governor per team plus three nonvoting seats compose the board) will prove to be a tough task.

With last week's announcement of a players' union, it is essential that Eileraas exhibit some forceful decision making. More than ever, owners and players will have insight into each other's business -- the St. Louis Athletica and the Los Angeles Sol folded in 2010, but St. Louis' ability to hide its financial woes would not have been possible in the new business model that calls for transparency among teams.

Despite how discouraging these constant changes in league structure may seem, they at least indicate a willingness by WPS to adapt. The old business model was not working and kudos to the WPS for making tough decisions that stabilize the league, something WUSA failed to do.

With a 1-0 win Saturday over the Atlanta Beat, the Washington Freedom booked the fourth and final WPS playoff ticket. Washington will meet the Philadelphia Independence on Sunday in the first-round game in Chester, Penn. Meanwhile, with Sky Blue FC's being eliminated from playoff contention, the WPS will not have a repeat champion in 2010. (The Boston Breakers await the Freedom-Independence winner in the WPS Super Semifinal, while the regular-season champion, FC Gold Pride, is already through to the final.)

Washington has won just one of its 12 road games this season, the worst record in WPS. Philadelphia is 7-3-2 at home and enjoys a true advantage at John A. Farrell Stadium, a narrow artificial-turf pitch. Washington will have to adapt from playing on a large grass field at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

The two teams split the season series with two wins each, but current form could be the one thing that favors Washington. Philadelphia has lost four straight games while the Freedom ended the season with just one loss in its final seven games.

Absent in Philadelphia's losing streak has been forward Amy Rodriguez's scoring touch. She has not scored in Philadelphia's last five games and it is clear that its offense runs through Rodriguez.

In contrast, her U.S. teammate Abby Wambach has been the driving force in Washington's late-season playoff push. The forward has six goals in the Freedom's final seven games (4-1-2 in that stretch), and her eight assists for the season demonstrate her playmaking ability.

Having said that, the hard-nosed Jen Buczkowski of Philadelphia is the perfect defender to shadow Wambach around the field. Washington may be hot and the Independence are slumping, but Rodriguez is due for a goal. Look for Philadelphia to advance to face Boston in the WPS Super Semifinal.