Inside the WPSL, the Breeding Ground of Today’s World Cup Stars

With alumni including Alex Morgan, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy, the WPSL has seen some of the greatest footballing talents in the world. But instead of resting on its laurels, the developmental league is putting an ambitious effort to improve even more. If the 2019 World Cup was a sign of what’s to come — it’s working. 

Jerry Zanelli founded the Women’s Premier Soccer League in 1998 to give female soccer players opportunities to continue playing the game they love at a high level. While Zanelli passed away in 2018, the fruits of his labor cannot be overstated.

Today, the WPSL is the largest women’s soccer league in the world, and with over 100 clubs throughout the United States, the league has not only fulfilled Zanelli’s vision for women playing the game competitively, but it has also offered countless communities the ability to watch quality soccer.

For many players, WPSL play serves to develop their game in the offseason before returning to their collegiate teams. For those in the post-grad stage of their careers, the league provides the same opportunity to up their skills while they seek out professional contracts. Some of the greatest soccer players in the world have played in the WPSL, and it has become a launching pad for many of the globe’s female soccer stars.

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The 2017 California Storm team, with Zanelli on the far right. (Image via WPSL)

The WPSL’s first-ever club was Zanelli’s hometown California Storm, based out of Sacramento. The team was dominant in the early stages of the league, winning titles in 1999, 2002, and 2004. Today, the team remains one of the most consistently competitive clubs in the WPSL, in large part due to their ability to pool some of the world’s most talented players.

Throughout his career as a coach, Zanelli was able to develop notable key players, including Alex Morgan, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Brazilian star Sissi. Current Storm Head Coach Jamie Levoy was on Zanelli’s staff in 2010, when both Morgan and Chastain starred for the team, and she remembers seeing glimpses of the icon that Morgan has become today.

“Sissi was telling me a story about how she heard Jerry tell Alex that she would be on the national team one day — Alex didn’t believe him,” Levoy said. “I think the WPSL really prepared them for the next step. It took their game up a notch, taught them another level of professionalism and forced them to play at a faster pace.”

Today, the Storm isn’t the only team with World Cup talent on its roster. Pensacola FC utilized the services of Nigerian national team forward Uchenna Kanu en route to a 2019 WPSL championship.

Kanu left Nigeria in 2016 to pursue greater soccer opportunities in the United States. That fall, she enrolled at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, where she has scored 115 goals in her three years with the team. This past season, she was voted the top NAIA women’s soccer player in the country.

In the summers following her collegiate seasons, Kanu joins Pensacola FC to play in the WPSL. Despite being selected for the Nigerian national team for the 2019 World Cup, Kanu made sure that this summer would be no different. After playing in all three of the Super Falcons’ World Cup matches, including a start in their final one against Germany, Kanu traveled back to the States to rejoin Pensacola for their playoff run.

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Kanu (left) playing with Nigeria during the 2019 World Cup. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Kanu’s impact was evident from the minute she stepped onto the pitch. She scored eight goals and tallied two assists in just six games with the team. Her biggest moment came in the 70th minute of the WPSL Championship game, when she slotted a goal to break the 2-2 tie in Pensacola’s favor. Kanu would later be named Most Outstanding Player of the match.

While Kanu may have been the most dominant World Cup participant playing in the WPSL, she was not alone. Florida Sol FC sent six former and current players to this summer’s World Cup, including USWNT players Morgan Brian and Emily Sonnett, who both played for the Sol academy before joining the team’s senior squad. In addition, Sade Adamolekun, Havana Solaun, Lauren Silver, and Ashleigh Shim all made the journey to France as part of the Jamaican national team.

After developing within Sol FC’s academy system, Brian and Sonnett went on to become back-to-back No. 1 overall selections in the 2015 and 2016 NWSL Drafts, respectively. Brian has been a USWNT mainstay, with 83 caps, while currently playing her club duties with the Chicago Red Stars. Sonnett has 34 caps with the national team, and has been a bright star for the Portland Thorns, who consistently lead the NWSL in attendance.

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Morgan Brian (center) at her camp at the Clay County Sol complex. Brian played with the Sol academy team for several years before breaking into the NWSL as the No. 1 overall pick. (Photo by Randy Lefko/Clay County Today)

With new expansion clubs joining the WPSL every year, the league continues to bring top level women’s soccer to communities throughout the U.S. From densely packed cities in California to rural areas in Eastern Washington, the WPSL continues to grow in prominence, as does the general clout surrounding the women’s game.

The WPSL is now working diligently to continue to develop some of the top talent in the women’s game. WPSL communications and match operations director James Polling firmly believes that the number of former and current WPSL athletes competing in France this summer is a testament to the success of the league.

“Our mission has always been to grow the game for women and give women opportunities, so there is a direct correlation being shown,” Polling said. “They are reaching the highest pinnacle of women’s soccer, en route through our league. There are various steps along the way, going through academy programs or developing in college, but we have been a part of that for so many players and it validates what we have achieved. There are still opportunities yet to be created for female soccer players in this country and we are working to break down those barriers. We aren’t done yet.”