The United Soccer League is seriously exploring starting a Division 1 women’s professional soccer league as early as 2021, sources with knowledge of the situation tell SI.com.
That USL league would compete directly against the National Women’s Soccer League, the current Division 1 women’s pro league in the United States.
Several ownership groups of USL men’s teams—which play in the second and third divisions on the men’s side—have already confirmed their interest in having a team in the proposed D1 women’s league, one source told SI.com. They are under the belief, the source said, that U.S. Soccer would allocate U.S. women’s national team players to their Division 1 league as it currently does with the NWSL.
A U.S. Soccer spokesperson confirmed that it would be possible for the federation to sanction two Division 1 women’s pro leagues.
A USL spokesperson, Ryan Madden, said he had no comment on whether the USL was launching a first-division women’s league. But he added: “We’re absolutely supporters of the women’s game. And like most soccer fans across the country, we want to see more women being given more opportunities to play the game at whatever level suits them.”
Why the USL would prefer to start its own rival women’s league instead of joining the NWSL remains unclear.
“It’s news to me,” NWSL president Amanda Duffy told SI.com when asked about the USL’s interest in starting a rival league. “From our standpoint, I can say that given the season that we’re coming out of right now, with record-setting attendances and important partnerships that have come into the picture, important expansion conversations and the outlook for the coming years and our player-compensation announcement recently, there are a lot of exciting things that have happened and that we’re working on in the NWSL.”
“We’ll remain committed in that, and our evolving relationship with U.S. Soccer is very important to the NWSL.”
In an announcement earlier this month of a new pathway for women’s players within the USL Academy, the USL wrote: “The United Soccer League today announced the launch of a female pathway within the USL Academy, which will provide a direct route for ambitious young players to reach the top level of professional soccer.”
Intriguingly, the ownership of a USL men’s team (Louisville City) this month announced that it would have an expansion team in the NWSL (Proof Louisville FC) in 2021. Meanwhile, the owner of this weekend’s USL Championship finalist Real Monarchs, Dell Loy Hansen, also owns the NWSL’s Utah Royals. (Hansen owns MLS’s Real Salt Lake as well.)
A source with knowledge of the situation noted that the U.S. Soccer sanctioning standards for a men’s second-division league were similar to those for a women’s first-division league and could increase the appeal for owners of USL men’s teams to field women’s teams.