Next April, the National Soccer Alliance will become the United States' first women's professional soccer league.
U.S. women's soccer is the best in the world, but the NSA has set its target so low that the league might be no more than a blip on the sporting radar, at least in its early years.
But that will not stop it from trying.
The NSA will attempt to prove Alan Rothenberg and the rest of U.S. Soccer wrong in their stance that the time to launch a women's league is after the 1999 Women's World Cup in the U.S., not before.
"We think we're the best team in world, but we need more games to show how good the United States can be," said Tisha Venturini, one of a dozen 1996 Olympic gold medalists who will provide the NSA's star power. "We're excited to have this league now, before the World Cup and [the 2000 Sydney] Olympics."
Venturini, from Modesto, and teammate Kristine Lilly, a veteran of the 1991 U.S. world championship-winning team, are genuinely enthusiastic about the new league.
"We are excited as players," Venturini said. "It's extremely important to be playing year-round. Other countries have leagues and are getting an edge every day of the year, in practice five days a week, competing, where we have two games a month. I don't think that will cut it."
Added Lilly: "Coming from a player's standpoint, if you look back at the past year and other countries' past year, they constantly have a league going on. We don't have a league to play in, and the development of the national team is affected.
"It's obvious the level of play will rise for our teams and our country. That is why this league is necessary for us--to compete with other countries."
That argument would be a little stronger had the U.S. national team not compiled a 52-3-4 record so far under Coach Tony DiCicco and won a bronze medal at the 1995 World Championship in Sweden and the gold medal at the Atlanta Games.
Overall, since the national team was founded in 1986, the United States is an astonishing 115-28-10, including a 21-1-2 record in 1996 and a 9-0-0 mark so far this year.
THE DORRANCE FACTOR
North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance, who has led the Tar Heels to 14 NCAA titles and who coached the U.S. team to its 1991 world championship, has been one of the prime movers behind the new league.
But Dorrance said he will remain at UNC and act only as chairman of the NSA's advisory committee.
Dorrance does not believe the league will hurt the college game.
"We feel the pool of players that is available to the league is a very high quality pool, capped by the Olympic players," Dorrance said. "This will be a league entirely made up of post-collegiate stars and also players who are currently playing for the U.S. national and Olympic teams or recently retired [from the national team]."
Dorrance said the NSA will not recruit players currently enrolled in university or college.
"That would destroy their collegiate eligibility," he said, "and that's certainly not what this league wants to do.
"We're figuring on 18-player rosters, probably with expanded rosters for training."
So far, in addition to Lilly and Venturini, the following top U.S. players have agreed to play in the league, although none has yet been allocated to a specific team: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Carla Overbeck, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Briana Scurry and Carin Gabarra.
Also, Amanda Cromwell, Tracy Ducar, Christie Pearce, Tammy Pearman and Thori Staples. The only foreign star committed is Angela Kelly of the Canadian women's national team.
Team names and logos and player allocations are expected to be announced in late October.
While the NSA would be the first professional league for women in the United States, it is not the country's first national women's league.
The 32-team W-League, operating under the United System of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL) umbrella, has been thriving on an amateur level for several seasons.
Dorrance said the W-League should not feel threatened by the NSA but should see it as an opportunity for the best W-League players to move up to a higher level.
"We want the W-League to continue to thrive because obviously all of us are pieces in a huge puzzle, and they're a critical piece," he said. "So we're in full support of what Francisco [Marcos, the league's commissioner] is doing with that league and we encourage its continued development."
The launch of the WNBA and its relatively successful first season has NSA planners hoping they can repeat that success.
The NSA will be a much lower-profile league, however. Salaries will range from $15,000 for players recruited at local tryouts to $30,000 for established players who are allocated to teams.
Teams will also play in intentionally small stadiums, with capacity not exceeding 5,000 except at Cal State Fullerton. The league says it can break even financially by averaging 2,500 a game.
The NSA's 10-week regular season will run from April 17-June 21. Games will be played on Friday evenings and Sundays, each team playing a 20-game schedule. The playoffs will culminate with a championship game on the July 4 weekend.
Just as Major League Soccer was quick to attract foreign players to its ranks, so the NSA has been inundated with questions from women overseas who would like to play in a U.S. league.
"We'll have a limit on foreigners," Dorrance said. "We just want the cream of their crop. What we're getting right now is an incredible influx of calls from abroad from players who want to jump into the league.
"We feel that what's going to occur, even in the first year, is a tremendous injection of foreign stars to complement an already very deep pool of quality players in this country.
"Our feeling right now is that the roster limit on foreign players will probably be four [per team]. That seems to be a number where we can still field some of the top international stars that would enhance the quality of our league and still give our players enough time to develop the American game, which is certainly our priority."
Aside from the United States, the top women players in the world are from Norway, Germany, China, Sweden and Italy.
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National Soccer Alliance
City: Stadium (Capacity)
Boston: Natick High, Natick, Mass. (4,700)
Dallas: Duncanville High, Duncanville, Texas (5,000)
Los Angeles: Titan Stadium, Cal State Fullerton (8,900)
N.Y./N.J.: Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J. (5,000)
Raleigh, N.C: WRAL Field (5,000)
Seattle: University of Washington (4,000)
San Jose: Police Athletic League Stadium (5,400)
Washington, D.C.: Walt Whitman High (4,600)