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Alive and kicking: The NWSL and Washington Spirit aim to bring women's soccer into the mainstream

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Sports,Craig Stouffer

Lori Lindsey has been here before, twice.

The U.S. national team midfielder launched her career with the Washington Freedom in the Women's United Soccer Association a decade ago. When Women's Professional Soccer took up the mantle in 2009, she was there waiting to rejoin the Freedom. When the Washington Spirit kick off their first match in the National Women's Soccer League this weekend, the 33-year-old will be on the field again.

Third time's the charm, right?

"I probably say that to myself," Lindsey said. "But I don't know, because a lot of people, this is their first time or second league that they've played in. People aren't quite used to it or don't even remember the WUSA."

Season opener
Spirit at Breakers
When » Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
Where » Dilboy Stadium, Somerville, Mass.
Webcast » washingtonspirit.com
First home game
Flash at Spirit
When » April 20, 7 p.m.
Where » Maryland SoccerPlex,
Germantown
Webcast » washingtonspirit.com

On the field, the ghosts of leagues past might not linger. But the opposite of exponential growth explains the evolution of the women's professional game. NWSL team budgets are around $1 million, about a third of the size they were in WPS and not even close to the absurd volume of cash the WUSA blew through in three years.

Managed by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the eight-team league was established with a singular goal: sustainability. NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey said salaries for the five-month league range from $6,000 to $30,000, with the United States, Canadian and Mexican national teams paying their first-team players. Games will be streamed live on team websites and YouTube.

"It's certainly by far the best business model that has been on the table so far," said Spirit owner Bill Lynch, whose software company, ProChain Solutions, will be on the front of the team's jerseys.

While they don't have U.S. superstars Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach, the Spirit roster was built around a core of U.S. role players and young players with local ties and potential. Dumfries native Ali Kreiger will anchor the defense with U.S. goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.

Midfielder Ingrid Wells (Georgetown), forward Tiffany McCarty (Florida State/St. John's College High), defender Kika Toulouse (Virginia/Bishop O'Connell High), forward Colleen Williams and forward Stephanie Ochs are all members of the U.S. under-23 pool. Ochs, McCarty and Williams helped the under-23s win the Four Nations Tournament last month in Spain, where Ochs was named MVP.

Just as Wambach emerged from WUSA into a national team stalwart, the NWSL hopes to be the place where the next generation of players refine their game and push their way into the senior team pool.

Wells was attracted enough to return after spending her first year as a professional with Goteborg FC in Sweden, a move she said was supported by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. It helps that her brother is a freshman at Georgetown and she has plenty of former classmates in the area. Wells said she hasn't heard from current U.S. coach Tom Sermanni -- "yet."

"I think it's good for me to be playing with players that are on the U.S. team and where I will be seen," Wells said.

Wells, like a majority of players, is living with a host family -- some of them are at home with their parents -- as the Spirit tries to keep down costs and attract 3,000 spectators per game. An ambitious preseason schedule of matches against Penn State, Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia helped the Spirit connect with more than 4,000 fans, Lynch said.

"Ultimately, regardless of how much it costs or what business model we put together, it's going to be, is there a sufficient amount of fan support?" Lynch said. "The fan base is going to drive a lot of the business model."

On the field, Krieger and Harris, who arrived Wednesday after two games in Europe with the U.S., have barely practiced a full week with the team due to national team duties. Developing chemistry will be as big a challenge as creating a league that becomes more than just a cause but a thriving business.

"I think the history does matter, and you learn from history, right?" Wells said. "So I think it is important, and it will help this league be more successful."

cstouffer@washingtonexaminer.com

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