The U.S. women's soccer team faces Japan on Thursday in the Olympics, but must play semipro or overseas with the collapse of women's pro league.

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Alex Morgan, the emerging face of U.S. women’s soccer, is competing on the Olympic stage in front of a worldwide audience. All of that will come into sharp focus Thursday when the United States faces Japan for the gold medal.

Then comes the letdown.

Morgan and the rest of the U.S. Olympic women’s soccer team have to come home and face a sobering reality: They don’t have a top-tier league to star in domestically.

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The collapse of a professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. led national team members Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux to play semipro this summer in Seattle for the Sounders Women. As all four try to bring a gold medal back to America, the future of the sport remains muddy 13 years after the sport made a huge splash in the 1999 World Cup. They return home to a country where women’s pro soccer has failed twice in a decade.

Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) folded in May following a legal dispute with the owner of a South Florida franchise, the magicJack. The league lasted just three years and left players scrambling to find a new teams.

Seven of the 18 women on the national team are affiliated with semipro clubs. Solo, Morgan, Rapinoe and Leroux signed with the Seattle Sounders Women in the W-League.

Not pulling punches

The outspoken Solo doesn’t pull punches when talking about the experience.

“It wasn’t good enough to call itself a professional league,” said Solo, who played for the magicJack. “There’s guidelines it had to meet, and it wasn’t meeting the guidelines. I don’t talk much about the WPS because an organization like the Seattle Sounders is more professional as a D-II team than any of the WPS teams ever were.”

The WPS failed to capitalize on last year’s Women’s World Cup run. The U.S. women lost to Japan in the final on penalty kicks. The cable broadcast was the second highest-rated women’s soccer game in U.S. history.

The 1999 Women’s World Cup final remains the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. An estimated 40 million viewers watched the U.S. national team beat China to claim its first Women’s World Cup. The match ended with Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt and celebrating after her winning penalty kick.

The victory sparked an effort to establish the first women’s professional soccer league in the U.S. But the WUSA folded after three years due to financial reasons.

“I think it’s disappointing and I think it’s frustrating,” said Sounders Women coach Michelle French, who was a member of the national team that won silver in the 2000 Olympics. “… You think there’s going to be a lot of sustainability and then it ends up folding or getting suspended.”

Gaining momentum after Olympics?

The U.S. women gained momentum during the group stage of the London Olympics, averaging 2.47 million viewers in a 3-0 win over Colombia. They advanced to Thursday’s World Cup rematch with Japan by beating Canada 4-3 Monday on Morgan’s last-minute goal in extra time.

The sport won’t be able to cash in yet. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) met in Chicago in June to brainstorm ideas for a women’s professional league that’d be economically viable. That meeting is only the first of many steps.

The sport is dealing with the same difficulties women’s professional basketball has faced without the backing of a successful men’s league like the NBA. The 12-team WNBA, which includes the Seattle Storm, has struggled since it was established in 1996.

Some MLS clubs are able to get involved with women’s soccer, as Sounders FC did with a licensing partnership with the Sounders Women last season, but others have not.

“We continue to observe and stay connected to what’s going on in women’s professional soccer,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “… As has been demonstrated by the two previous professional women’s soccer leagues, it’s a very tough business.

“It’d have to be something economically viable. To date, it appears that hasn’t necessarily been the case.”

Solo, Morgan, Rapinoe and Leroux said they enjoyed their time with the Sounders Women. They could see a professional league working by using the MLS model of nurturing teams in attractive soccer markets and using small venues.

The support the Sounders Women received should make Seattle a potential destination — if another professional league starts up.

“Do I think there’s going to be a pro league in my playing time? I’m not sure I believe that,” Solo said. “But this is a second division league and it’s a good starting point for where we need to be.”

Overseas option for female players

If Solo and her three Seattle teammates don’t return to the Sounders Women next season, they will likely play overseas.

The national team trained for the Olympics in Sweden and watched games of that country’s top women’s league during the trip. Morgan walked away impressed with the competition, but international clubs aren’t necessarily looking for foreigners.

And she has heard the welcome isn’t always warm.

“I hope that (international) teams do reach out to us,” said Morgan. “Not only for me, I’m also talking about my teammates who haven’t seen the field on the national team or haven’t been called up.

“They still want to play.”

Morgan stressed a compromise between the players and owners would be the best solution for women’s soccer. She knows only some players would be paid and suggests night practices so players could support themselves with day jobs.

The owners’ pockets won’t get fat.

“Looking forward, hopefully we learn from our mistakes,” Morgan said. “Players will bend over backward to make this league work.”

Until then, Morgan will have to choose between a semipro or an international league in years before World Cup and Olympic years.