American soccer fans who’ve hoped to see the women’s club game grow at lower-division levels like the men’s game could soon be getting a boost.

United Women’s Soccer, which runs regional semipro divisions across the country, announced Thursday that it is teaming up with the professional men’s third-tier National Independent Soccer Association in an effort to launch a second-tier women’s league in 2022.

“With the amount of talent and interest across women’s soccer in the U.S. and Canada, it makes sense to expand the opportunities to play professionally,” UWS cofounder Roberto Aguas said in a statement. “While UWS fills that gap by providing the highest pathway to pro for the amateur player, its efforts to foster talent development will be augmented through this alliance and the development of a new women’s pro league.”

UWS, headquartered in Metuchen, N.J., started in 2016 with 11 teams and now has over 70. The only Pennsylvania squad is in Lancaster, a team that has won the league’s last two East Conference titles.

A number of high-profile women played in the league before turning pro, including rising U.S. star Catarina Macario, the Washington Spirit’s Ashley Sanchez, Atletico Madrid’s Deyna Castellanos (who went to college at Florida State), and Reign FC’s Bethany Balcer.

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The Chicago-based NISA endured a rocky start when it launched in 2019, including a Philadelphia outfit that hasn’t played since two games that September. Teams in Miami and Oakland have left for the USL. But there are well-backed clubs elsewhere, including Chattanooga, Tenn., Detroit, and New York — the last of which is the current iteration of the famed Cosmos. Planned expansion markets include Chicago, suburban Washington, Providence, and Bayonne, N.J.

It would have helped a lot if NISA teams had been able to play in the U.S. Open Cup last year. The tournament shines a spotlight on teams from every rank of American soccer, and NISA teams would likely have faced USL or MLS opponents. But the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 edition, the first cancellation in the event’s 106-year history. There should be an edition this year, with the pandemic of course still a caveat.

A women’s Open Cup would further liven up the landscape. But the NWSL has just 10 teams (expanding to 12 next year), and the gap between the pro and amateur circuits is too big. A second-tier pro league would help fill that gap, and perhaps encourage the U.S. Soccer Federation (which runs the men’s Open Cup) to come up with a plan.

The UWS-NISA joint venture is not yet ready to say where it might have teams due to confidentiality agreements, a source with knowledge of the situation said.

That source passed along details from the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Professional League Standards document which set the baselines for leagues at various levels. A second-division women’s league must have at least six teams, with eight by the third season, and all must be in metropolitan areas with populations of at least 500,000. Teams must play in stadiums with at least 2,000 capacity, and each team’s principal owner (having at least a 35% stake) must have a net worth of at least $7.5 million.

The league standards are a sore spot for some fans who admire Europe’s promotion-and-relegation model, where a lower-level team with few resources can rise up the ranks by winning games and investing. But American soccer’s history is littered with many busts and few booms. Only recently has the sport’s infrastructure become solid enough for investors to envision lower-level teams and leagues being profitable.

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