Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan headline the National Women's Soccer League, the third incarnation of a women's professional soccer league in the United States.
The U.S. stars of the London Olympics will be joined by other national players in the eight-team league. The season kicks off Saturday night with FC Kansas City hosting scoring-sensation Morgan and the Portland Thorns FC in Overland Park, Kan.
Wambach, who will play for the Western Flash in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., travels Sunday to face Sky Blue FC in Piscataway, N.J.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo (Seattle) is sidelined after wrist surgery for most of the nearly four-month season and midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who is playing for Olympique Lyon in France, says she's "slated to go with the Seattle team'' in mid-June.
Here's five things to know about the latest women's soccer endeavor.
1. What's different about this league?
Along with providing entertainment for soccer lovers, it exists to give national team players high-caliber competition between the Olympics and the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. The league is partly financed by the U.S. Soccer Federation, along with the Canada and Mexico soccer federations, which will pay some of the salaries. The eight owners pick up the remainder of the salaries, so the operating expenses and high salaries that doomed earlier leagues (WUSA 2001-03; WPS 2010-12) are less of an issue. Only athletes from those three countries will compete in the NWSL, plus two international players on each squad. Marta from Brazil won't play this season, but could be picked up by a team next year if she's available.
2. Where will the teams play?
The eight cities include old-timers Boston, Chicago, Rochester, N.Y., Piscataway, N.J., and Washington, D.C., plus newcomers Kansas City, Portland and Seattle. Most teams will compete in venues that seat between 3,000 and 6,000. The Boston Breakers' home at Dilboy Stadium holds 3,500; FC Kansas City provides 6,150 seats at the Shawnee Mission District Stadium; the Flash offers the 13,768-capacity Sahlen's Stadium. The largest venue is Jeld-Wen Field, the home of the Portland Thorns and Timbers of the MLS, which holds 20,488. Ticket prices start at $10 and $120 for a season-ticket package of 11 home games.
3. How can fans watch games?
The league will announce a TV deal soon, according to NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey. The regular season runs April 13 through July 31, and fans can view live streaming and archived games on YouTube. Bailey, the former GM of the U.S. national team from 2007-11, says the NWSL is in the final stages of landing a major apparel sponsor to help promote the league. The eight teams will market to their communities, hoping to draw fans to the mostly weekend games and create what Bailey calls "a sustainable league, one that puts down great roots this year.''
4. What's the players' salaries?
U.S. Soccer will pay three American national players on each team more than $30,000, and the Canada and Mexico federation will pay its two national players on each team negotiated salaries. The 13 remaining athletes on the 20-player roster will be paid by the teams, with salaries ranging from $6,000 to $30,000, according to Bailey. That covers about a five-month period with training camp and 22 games through July.
5. Why start another pro league?
U.S. Soccer looks to keep players in the spotlight between the Olympics, where the Americans earned a gold medal in a 2-1 victory against Japan in front of 80,203 fans at Wembley Stadium, and the World Cup. Wambach says: "We have a lot more fan base than we had in the past, and we're hoping to piggyback some of the fan base'' of the national team and bring them "in the stadiums around the country.'' If girls high school soccer participation during the last decade is any indication of fan base, it's on the rise. There were 370,975 high school girls playing soccer in 2011-12, compared to 295,265 in 2001-02 - a 26 percent increase - according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Morgan says it's "so important for the future generation, when they come up, to have a way to play soccer.''