The National Women’s Soccer League, otherwise known as the NWSL, has to be considered a vulnerable league. In 2016, the NWSL played its fourth season, becoming the first professional women’s soccer league in the States to make it that far. In 2017, they surpassed that mark and have just completed their fifth regular season. The playoffs lie in the weeks ahead. The development of the NWSL has been of incredible importance to US Soccer, but in order to continue it needs to not only survive through seasons but grow and expand. So here is a status update on how it is going in that regard.
The NWSL is the professional soccer league for women in the United States, and the successor of various failed leagues before it. Both the Women’s United Soccer Association and the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) leagues folded after only three years in 2003 and 2012 respectively. In the decades since women’s soccer “exploded” in the US after the 1999 World Cup, there have been large periods of time where there has been no professional women’s league at all. For a nation boasting the best national team in the world, that was a severe indictment of their programme. The inability to create a stable league forced players like Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath overseas to France, limited the talent pool and was generally a headache for US Soccer.
It was a headache that, in the past few years, the NWSL has seemed to alleviate. Not only has the NWSL now outlived its predecessors (which was celebrated by the league with an unmistakeably superstitious element that perhaps the curse was broken), but it has provided a plethora of players for USWNT coach Jill Ellis to select from. She has taken that opportunity, bringing in NWSL standouts like Kealia Ohai, Lynn Williams, Taylor Smith and Abby Dahlkemper. Whilst all of the aforementioned footballers had successful college careers, it was the NWSL that brought their skills to the fore, and to the attention of the National Team coaching staff.
The NWSL’s Victories and Strengths
In order to assess how the NWSL is progressing, we must of course discuss what is going well. Here are some key successes for the league in recent times.
Last season saw the introduction of their first expansion team, the Orlando Pride. The Pride allowed the league to expand from 9 teams to a stronger, 10 team league. Californian supporters are hopeful of adding a side from their region in future seasons.
In 2017, the NWSL secured a contract with the television network Lifetime, which meant that one game was shown live on TV each week. All the matches were live-streamed, as well. As any athlete will tell you, exposure to the masses is crucial, and as any female athlete will tell you, it can be hard to come by.
This season, the Pride signed the world’s greatest female player, Marta. Securing a player of Marta’s phenomenal calibre was a massive victory for the league. Players of the Brazilian’s sheer class and brilliance attract crowds, motivate young fans and raise the quality of the football, therefore improving the league’s development function.
The NWSL was also able to persuade Mal Pugh to play for one of their franchises, the Washington Spirit. This involved women’s soccer’s most promising talent turning down what was sure to be an appealing contract from France (where a lot of the money in the women’s game is) to choose to play for her home league. Not only that, but Pugh actually chose the NWSL over the traditional player pathway of playing at college by forgoing her spot at UCLA (one of the nation’s best programmes). Mal Pugh is part of the new generation of players and her skill set is widely sought after. She is at a stage where all of her decisions revolve around ensuring her career lives up to her plentiful potential. Her decision to play for the Spirit is, therefore, a resounding vote of confidence in the NWSL as a league.
Each season sees the NWSL attract more and more international players. Names that spring to mind are the inspirational Danish striker Nadia Nadim and French superstar Amandine Henry, both at the Portland Thorns. The Orlando Pride boasts a trio of formidable Brazilian players in Marta, Camila and Alves. The Houston Dash have their fair share of Brazilian talent too, and English striker Rachel Daly. There are a number of Australians in the league, most notably Sam Kerr, Steph Catley and Hayley Raso. Additionally, there are four kiwis playing over in the States: Abby Erceg (North Carolina Courage), Rebekah Stott (Seattle Reign), Rosie White (Boston Breakers) and Katie Bowen (FC Kansas City).
The football is of a high quality and is very entertaining. A common problem in leagues of the size of the NWSL for any sport is that there is the potential for dynasties by one or two sides. Somehow, the NWSL avoids that. Whilst some teams are always stronger or weaker (the Boston Breakers tend to struggle), the Shield and the Championship have been shared around. The old axiom that any team can beat any other team on any given day holds true for the NWSL. Sky Blue, who finished relatively comfortably outside the playoff spots, beat the outright Shield winners the NC Courage, and the second seed the Portland Thorns on their way to their mid-table finish. The flipside of that is that they also lost to FCKC and the Spirit, who languish below them on the table. Results in the NWSL are truly unpredictable.
The ultimate victory for the NWSL is that they have now played through five regular seasons and are looking with a degree of security at a sixth. Given that no other women’s professional soccer league has achieved that in the US, this is a feat that needs acknowledgement.
Areas of Weakness
For all of these successes, the NWSL has some key issues that it needs to resolve in order to continue to develop.
They will be looking to increase the number of games that are televised by Lifetime each week to further increase the support base. There is also still the pressing issue of the pay gap between male and female athletes in US Soccer. Several players in the NWSL have spoken on how it is difficult to live comfortably off what they earn. For players who aren’t in the USWNT and have lower salaries, there is almost no security. When you add to this equation that clubs can waive players throughout the season, there is an issue with the way the players are treated. If the NWSL wants to keep its players, it needs to make playing in the league viable for all of them, not just its superstars.
This past off-season brought instability that the NWSL will want to eradicate, when the Champions, the Western New York Flash, were sold and relocated to North Carolina. There, they were renamed the North Carolina Courage. In the end, it has turned out fine for the league because the Courage were able to maintain the bulk of their Championship-winning roster and adjusted to their new surroundings well, lifting the regular season Shield this past week. Yet, the move had the potential to damage the credibility of the league and one of its stronger sides.
The NWSL has also been marred by recent controversies. Last season, the Seattle Reign and the former Western New York Flash played a game on the outfield of a baseball stadium because the Flash’s regular stadium was not available. This meant the field size was greatly reduced to almost the bare minimum of FIFA’s regulations (fields need to be at least 50 yards wide, the pitch in question measured 58). The field was, in fact, smaller than the NWSL requires. The Flash had to get special permission to use it, and the mind boggles as to why said permission was ever given. The game was farcical. Every throw became a long throw and players could easily have scored from halfway-had they had any room to move. The entire situation was extremely dangerous. The NWSL did apologise, somewhat half-heartedly and Reign coach Laura Harvey referred to their sentiments as “the Party line”, drawing the mind to the opacities of the Soviet Union, which many times refused to admit their errors. Whilst any sporting league is not comparable to a totalitarian regime, there are parallels to be drawn over the transparency of the League. Fundamentally, as Reign FC player Jess Fishlock put it, “it’s about respect”. The players have to come first, and too often in the NWSL, whether it’s over pay or safety, they don’t.
Ali Krieger’s interview after transferring from the Washington Spirit to the Orlando Pride is further evidence to the claim that the NWSL needs to make large improvements in the area of respect. Krieger claimed that she did not feel valued at the Spirit and that, when she was transferred, there was barely any communication from the club she had served and captained for several seasons. It came after Krieger had led the team to the Championship game, where the Spirit fell agonisingly short. In the post-season following that loss, the Spirit’s roster was decimated, which lends strength to Krieger’s claims that there is a culture issue at the club. Yet, the Spirit are not the only franchise who have been known to treat players poorly. Last year, New Zealand’s own Erin Nayler signed for Sky Blue FC. She was greeted by substandard accommodation and then the club waived her before she could appear in their colours. When Nayler then tried to sign for a new club side in France, there were contractual issues that were resolved only as time ran down on the deal.
There are definitely things for the NWSL to work on as it concludes its fifth year and looks ahead to the sixth. In order to become the type of league that everyone-the players, fans and administrators alike-want it to become, they cannot be complacent in their success of becoming the longest-running league. The NWSL has shown itself to be the survivor in an apparently hostile landscape for women’s professional soccer. Now, they need to start to thrive. The NWSL has an important role to play in the pursuit of equality for female athletes, and in order to play that particular role as it needs to, surviving is no longer enough.
A lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).