Women's Soccer Retrenches After Challenging Season

09/21/2010 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In its second year of play, in the midst of economic turmoil and declining mainstream media, Women's Professional Soccer only makes the news when something happens off the field.

So in that sense, Tonya Antonucci and Hope Solo are taking one for the team. They're making news.

Solo did it the new-fashioned way, taking to Twitter with a conspiracy theory that referees wanted the Washington Freedom to beat her team, the Atlanta Beat. The case isn't particularly convincing -- the league would have little to gain from that result, and the referee declined to blow her whistle on two fouls that could've been penalty kicks for Washington. The league's response: a $2,500 fine, eight hours of community service and a one-game suspension.

Antonucci made news the old-fashioned way, stepping down from her job as commissioner after four years of work to launch the league and two years in charge.

"It's been six years and a lot of challenges," Antonucci said. "I knew there would be a right time. This summer, it was something I'd been thinking about."

She chose the timing, just ahead of the three-game WPS playoffs. But someone leaked it the old-fashioned way, telling it to the Washington Post's Steven Goff, whose sources insist Antonucci was pushed out, paying the price for low attendance (3,601 average) and the dissolution of teams of Los Angeles and St. Louis.

The reality those sources might not realize -- or simply failed to state -- is that changes in the league office left little place for a start-up entrepreneur like Antonucci.

"They need a different type of leader," Antonucci says. "The role of the national office is shifting and changing."

More specifically, it's getting smaller. Team owners are taking more control on their own. Antonucci isn't being literally replaced. Anne-Marie Eileraas, who Antonucci brought on as general counsel in January, will be league CEO, not commissioner.

Eileraas, for one, gives Antonucci plenty of credit for getting the league off the ground and says she's honored to have earned her trust.

"Tonya is amazing -- the vision and passion that she put into the league," Eileraas says. "The league wouldn't be here without her."

Eileraas will keep her duties as general counsel, if not the title, but she says the legal work has evolved from governance issues to the day-to-day business of dealing with a new players union and closing deals with expansion teams and sponsors.

"Those are the things you love to do as a lawyer," Eileraas says.

With little marketing boost from the league office, attendance should be solely on the shoulders of the local teams. Preventing teams from shutting down may be a more collaborative effort.

"We don't want another St. Louis," Atlanta owner T. Fitz Johnson told the New York Times.

In hindsight, Antonucci has said the Los Angeles situation could've been handled differently. St. Louis was more complicated.

"All of a sudden, the partners had backed out and the money was gone," Antonucci says.

Antonucci says the whole WPS board voted to terminate St. Louis rather than spend bond money held in reserve to keep the team afloat through the season, and the league has changed some fiscal practices to make sure a team has the cash to get through a season at the very least. But the remaining owners also are committing to greater oversight of each other.

"It's got to come from the owners themselves holding each other accountable," Eileraas says.

The subpar attendance and the losses of the St. Louis and Los Angeles teams are the bad news from Antonucci's tenure. The good news: WPS still exists and still boasts the deepest talent pool of any league in the world. In this economic climate, 11 years after the Women's World Cup boom, that's an accomplishment.

Eileraas hasn't heard any indication that any of the other seven teams wouldn't return for 2011. Several sponsors are still on board. The league's players have unionized. And surely the owners wouldn't be working on such a radical restructuring if they planned to pull the plug immediately after the final Sept. 26.

But soccer leagues and women's sports leagues have a frustrating history in the USA, and WPS is far from turning the corner, particularly in a turbulent economy. The league needs more fans, and the teams could use more investors.

The message is clear: If you have any sort of interest in women's soccer, now is the time to step up.