After years of trying, Swedish women’s soccer has finally caught up with the men’s league, although it may be more of a curse than a blessing.
by Chipp Reid
The Damallsvenskan, arguably the top women’s soccer league in the world just two years ago, has officially surrendered that title to the U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer and, just as the NHL has made the Swedish Elitserien into a factory for new players, the Damallsvenskan is fast becoming a feeder to WPS.
Eight Swedish or Swedish-based players are set to join the WPS, which opens its second season in March. They will join Carolina Jonsson, the former Malmö LdB and Swedish national team goalkeeper who plays for Chicago in WPS. Former Umeå IK and Sweden midfielder Frida Östberg also played for Chicago in the league’s inaugural season but decided against a second year. Östberg said she completely understands the draw of the new league.
“It’s a real challenge to come there to play,” Östberg said. “It’s a chance to do something you love all the time, to be a professional and it’s a chance to play against the players in the world.”
WPS has succeeded where its short-lived predecessor, the Women’s United Soccer Association, failed in attracting Swedish players. WUSA made a play for then-stars Hanna Ljungberg, Jane Törnqvist, Victoria Svensson, Malin Moström, Anna Sjöström and Hanna Marklund but none of them signed with the now-defunct league. WPS Communications Director Rob Penner said the reason was in the way new league operates.
“We have realistic expectations,” Penner said. “We’re starting small and growing the league and the sport and not thinking bigger than we are. Managing costs is a massive undertaking and it certainly provides challenges but it’s another thing we’re stressing, especially in this economy. Plus, we have some tools that weren’t around eight or nine years ago. We’re using social media to build a fan base. We already have over 200,000 following us on Twitter. That wasn’t out there eight or nine years ago.”
The real success of WPS, however, has been its ability to attract top-flight talent while avoiding the financial pitfalls that sank WUSA. The league pried Brazilian superstar Marta away from Umeå last year and now, has added Sweden national team captain Caroline Seger, sniper Madeleine Edlund, midfield engine Sara Larsson, Swiss star Ramona Bachmann, who played for Umeå and 20-year-old Linköping star Kosovare Asllani.
Penner said he believes it is a sign WPS has arrived on the world scene.
“Obviously WPS proved in year one that we’re the best soccer league in the world and when any athlete gets to the top of the career arc, they want to be in the best league,” he said. “WPS provides that. A lot of players want to come to WPS and the teams have done a great job of recruiting. There is something really appealing for a professional athlete to live and breathe the sport.”
Until the advent of WPS, the Damallsvenskan reveled in its European dominance. Perennial champions Umeå IK had a virtual stranglehold on attracting new talent and it scored a major when it signed Marta in 2004. Recent years saw other Swedish clubs begin to catch up with Umeå as a new generation of players made their presence felt.
“Coaches have gone over to Scandinavia and certainly GMs for each team have kept their eyes on what happens over there,” Penner said.
WPS has another weapon in its arsenal with which Swedish clubs simply can’t compete: deep pockets. Sports conglomerate Anschutz Entertainment Group stands behind the Los Angeles franchise while other big-money sponsors such as Comcast Sports and former Yahoo president and COO Jeff Mallett also support the league.
Sweden’s top team, Umeå IK, nearly went bankrupt in 2009 as local sponsors and the global recession sapped the team’s resources. UIK also tried to work as a fully professional team, but the salaries it can offer coupled with Swedish taxes pale in comparison to what players can earn in WPS.
Still, for players such as Asllani, the chance to play in the top league is worth more than a mere salary, even for a player who helped lead Linköping FC to its first-ever Swedish women’s title.
“I had a magical year in Linköping where we won everything we could win in Sweden,” she said. “I know that by playing in the world’s best league I can take my career to the next level. I will get to face the world’s best players every day.”
Swedish and Swedish-based players in WPS (Swedish team in brackets)
Ramona Bachmann (Umeå IK)
Chicago Red Stars
Kosovare Asllani (Linköping)
Caroline Jonsson (Malmö) (2nd year in league)
Los Angeles Sol
Johanna Frisk (Umeå IK)
Marta (Umeå IK) (2nd year in league)
New Jersey Sky Blue
Jessica Landström (Linköping)
St. Louis Athletica
Madeleine Edlund (Umeå)
Caroline Seger (Linköping)
Sarah Larsson (Linköping)