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The NWSL gets a shot at its biggest spotlight ever

I have to start this post with two disclaimers.

First, before I started writing I went back through my archives to make sure I hadn't used the same headline in the past.

Second, the odds are currently better than they've ever been that we might some day get to the point when I don't have to write a story like this anymore.

With that said...

I was in Seattle at the end of August, and while I was there I covered the Reign's regular season home finale. The team's home, Memorial Stadium, is a beautiful and historic venue - the kind that feels familiar if you've spent any time at Franklin Field or the Palestra. And the setting is spectacular, with stands nestled almost at the foot of the Space Needle.

As is prone to happening in the Emerald City, it rained throughout the night. I was fine for most of the evening, safely ensconced in the press box, and further sheltered by the big roof that sweeps over the sideline stands.

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush was not. When he brought the NWSL Shield out to midfield to present to the Reign for having the best regular season record, he was dressed in a suit and open shirt, but no outerwear to protect his attire from the elements. No one even offered him an umbrella.

I couldn't help thinking it was an apt metaphor for the league's track record of not quite correctly handling big occasions.

On Sunday, the league will get another big occasion. In fact, it will get two of them, in the form of this year's playoff semifinals. At 1:30 p.m., Christen Press and Julie Johnston's Chicago Red Stars will host FC Kansas City, whose roster includes Becky Sauerbrunn, Lauren Holiday, Heather O'Reilly and Amy Rodriguez. At 9:30 p.m., Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo's top-seeded Reign will host Crystal Dunn's Washington Spirit.

Fox Sports 1 will televise both games as part of a Sunday soccer marathon, Along with the NWSL twinbill, there are two Bundesliga games in the morning and a MLS contest in the evening.

It's an ideal confluence of circumstances - big stars, big soccer markets and big TV exposure. Both of Sunday's games should beat the regular-season average of 97,300 viewers for three games on Fox Sports 1. Indeed, they should beat the regular season peak of 136,000 viewers who watched Seattle face Carli Lloyd's Houston Dash on August 21.

Plush has tried in a series of interviews and conference calls over the last few weeks to steer the conversation away from his league's infrastructure and toward its players. It's understandable as to why, but he doesn't have much of a choice. He carries that burden because his league is tantalizingly close to doing something that neither the Women's United Soccer Association nor Women's Professional Soccer could: survive into a fourth season.

From a distance, that shouldn't be a marquee accomplishment, but from up close, it is. And as I and many others have documented many times, a big reason why is the league's cooperation with Major League Soccer - including teams in Portland and Houston that are owned and operated by the MLS clubs in those markets.

It is a sea change from previous years - especially the WUSA era - when the women's soccer community wanted nothing to do with the men's soccer community and wasn't afraid to say so publicly. Now, the top U.S. women's national team stars routinely praise MLS and advocate for closer relations between the two entities.

Sauerbrunn, for example, said a few days ago during a conference call with national media that "the more collaboration there is between MLS and the NWSL, that will only be for the betterment of our league."

We'll see more collaboration on Sunday. The Chicago-Kansas City game will take place at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., well-known as the home of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire.

This is noteworthy only because Toyota Park isn't the Red Stars' home venue. That honor belongs to the 3,600-seat multi-purpose stadium at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. It's just over a half-hour's drive west of Bridgeview - which itself is 45 minutes (on a good day) from downtown Chicago. If you're coming from the North Side or suburbs such as Rosemont (near O'Hare) or Evanston (near Northwestern University), you can figure the rest out for yourself.

The Red Stars called Toyota Park home during the Women's Professional Soccer era in 2009 and 2010, but they withdrew from the league after that because of financial issues. You don't have to be a women's soccer insider to figure out that the club's current home costs far less to rent than the previous one did.

Nonetheless, Toyota Park has established itself by now as a well-known destination for soccer in the Chicago region, which is why the Red Stars play there a few times a year. Doing so in and of itself raises the team's profile, as Red Stars and U.S. national team veteran Lori Chalupny acknowledged on that same conference call.

"I don't know the reasons why we play where we play, but we love Toyota Park," she said, singling out the venue's "real soccer atmosphere."

Chalupny's remarks came as no surprise to Plush, who is a product of Major League Soccer. He was the managing director of the Colorado Rapids from 2006 to 2011, and during that time served on the boards of governors for MLS and Soccer United Marketing.

"I think we certainly look forward to these opportunities, and to be able to do it more often when it's feasible and appropriate," he said after Chalupny spoke.

Plush's experience in MLS is one of the many reasons why he is often judged by fans and media in comparison to MLS commissioner Don Garber. Some of the comparisons aren't fair, but plenty are - and they often aren't favorable.

Among the most consequential, and accurate, comparisons is this:

Garber is a very public figure, constantly jet-setting to MLS games and other soccer events around the world. He is almost always available for an interview, or at least a statement, and maintains a high profile on social media. Plush has made relatively few public appearances, hasn't granted many interviews, and isn't on Twitter (though he has said he intends to sign up).

Is Plush required to do those things? No. But for all the heat Garber takes about MLS, no one disputes that his embrace of the spotlight that comes with being a commissioner has helped raise the profile of his league.

Over the last few weeks, Plush has started to come out of that shell, and it's good that he has. But whether he likes it or not, the bar is high. Here's one example: during that conference call a few days ago, Plush used the word "customers" repeatedly in places where the word "fans" might have gone.

Garber would not have done that.

Plush's biggest misstep this year was announcing in mid-August that the championship game would be played at a fixed site - Providence Park in Portland, Ore. - instead of at the highest seed in the final. He told Equalizer Soccer's Jeff Kassouf on August 17 that the decision was made in January, and declined to say why it took so long.

"I was probably doing this in a more traditional, old-school way of presenting the information and that's a learning experience certainly for me and for the league," Plush told Equalizer.

Fans and media alike responded by noting that a "more traditional" way would have been to make the announcement before the season started.

Twelve days later, Plush spoke with reporters on that rainy night in Seattle. When he was asked about the title game controversy, he sounded chastened.

"You don't want fans to ever feel slighted," Plush said in a locker room-turned-press room at Memorial Stadium. "You want fans to be thrilled and excited about the decisions you make, or at least understand why you make them. I understand it and I don't take that lightly."

In that same room a few hours later, Plush gained a perhaps-unlikely ally: Reign head coach Laura Harvey. The wonderfully charismatic Englishwoman gave the decision a strong endorsement - not least because her team would have a shot at winning a title on its biggest rival's home turf.

"If we couldn't host at Memorial, I think Portland would be my second choice," she said. "It's a fantastic environment. It will be hostile - well it will be hostile if we're there... I honestly would say silence in that crowd is one of the best moments of my career. So I'd love to try to do that again."

Harvey also acknowledged that Providence Park is the right place for the kind of occasion that a fixed-site final can create, and in particular the first fixed-site final in NWSL history.

"If we can pack out a stadium of that amount of people, then it shows that no matter what, the league has something - that proven it can be here long term," she said. "Whoever's in the final, I just hope it's a truly fantastic occasion that people can buy into, and we as a league can put on a product that people want to see - and I truly believe the product is here."

For as much controversy as moving the final created, there have been plenty of reasons for NWSL fans to be happy this year. The biggest reason is that there are more of them than ever before. Teams across the league have enjoyed a significant bump in attendance and exposure since the U.S. women won the World Cup this summer.

In fact, this year marks the first time ever that a women's soccer league in the United States has experienced a year-over-year increase in average per-game attendance. Plush has earned the right to put that line on his résumé.

"We are excited about where we are, we're excited about what it can lead to and where our future might very well end up," Plush said that night in Seattle. "Part of the reason you saw a bump isn't just what happened in the World Cup, it's that we were prepared to have a bump, because we worked hard and tried to create the right environment and the right customer service and all those things. So we're pleased, but not satisfied."

This week, Plush said with some vigor that "everyone is committed" to return next season, which means all nine current teams will be on board in 2016.

There may be expansion too, as Orlando City and Real Salt Lake have been pushing to launch NWSL clubs of their own. Equalizer's Dan Lauletta reported this week that the NWSL's Board of Governors will vote on potential expansion at its next meeting, though he couldn't glean details on specifics.

We do know this much: Plush said in Seattle that the league is fine with considering expansion candidates beyond MLS.

"We'll expand to the right markets when the timing is right, when the right ownership group with the right stadium infrastructure plan comes to the table, and brings value to the boardroom," he said. "I think the really important thing is to grow with the right people at the right time. You can expand too quickly, let's put it that way, and we don't want to make those mistakes."

The league's infrastructure appears to be in reasonable health, especially the bedrock principle of financial support from the national soccer federations of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Those federations help pay the salaries of their national team stars, which goes a long way toward helpiing to balance NWSL owners' books.

"We're thrilled with our federation relationships," Plush said. "Clearly, we're most aligned with U.S. Soccer - my office is in the U.S. Soccer building, so there's no denying that there's a close relationship, but that's as it should be, and I think we see the great benefits of that."

That's not the case all the time, though, as NWSL fans have come to know too well. In particular, the women's national team has repeatedly scheduled games at key times during the NWSL season, including the playoffs.

Many of those moves have come too late for the league to re-arrange its schedule so that its teams aren't deprived of their stars, which affects results on the field just as much as ticket sales - and perhaps more.

"Sure, it's a balancing act, and yes, there's victory tour matches going on in an important time frame for our league, but that's because a lot of good things are happening in our sport," Plush said.

Plush was similarly upbeat about relations with Canada and Mexico. Some Canadians have grumbled about kowtowing to Americans, and the Mexican federation didn't subsidize any of its national team players in the NWSL this year. Mexico has also started to finally build out its own player development structure, but at this point it's only for youth players. So Plush isn't concerned.

"Where it ends up next year, we have not yet talked to Canada in any formal way, but everything has been really positive with the Canadian Soccer Association," he said. "And the Mexicans, they did come out with launching a youth/amateur league, but I think there is interest in being involved with us long term."

Plush surprisingly added that the Australian federation could come on board in the future with a similar arrangement, in part because its women's league season runs at the opposite time of year from the NWSL's. There are already many Australian players in the NWSL, including stars Samantha Kerr, Caitlyn Foord and Kyah Simon.

"That is a natural one, because it is counter-seasonal," Plush said. "We had a very good meeting with Australia during the World Cup... They play an exciting style, have a good league and would be good partners."

It's worth noting that Plush's remarks came before the Matildas went on strike to protest the federation's less-than-satisfactory collective bargaining proposal. But once a new deal is in place, perhaps an arragement with the NWSL will follow.

"It's a model that makes a lot of sense for where we are today," he said. "We'll see where it is five years from now, but I think as we go forward right now, it's really a positive relationship."

At the moment, all eyes are on Chicago and Seattle for Sunday's big games. The winners earn tickets to Portland for the title game, which will be played on October 1st. Even though the Thorns aren't in the playoffs, you can be sure the organziation will give that night all the trappings of a big occasion.

Yet even as passionate a believer in women's soccer as Thorns owner Merritt Paulson wouldn't make the investment if he didn't think he could get some kind of return on it. This year has proven that the demand is there.

Just ask Harvey. Before coming to Seattle for the NWSL's first season, she spent four years as the manager of Arsenal's women's team, one of England's best-funded and most successful. She won a raft of trophies with the Gunners, as big a brand as you'll find in the English sporting culture, but women's soccer rarely broke into the mainstream.

"I remember going to the Olympics in London in 2012, going to watch Britain vs. Brazil at Wembley, and there were 70,000 people there," she said. "I will never forget that because I never thought I would see it. Never. I never thought I would see that many people watching the [women's] game, especially in my country, ever."

By joining the Reign, Harvey started to see first-hand how much of a sporting and social behemoth the U.S. women's national team's sporting and social behemoth that the U.S. national team is. This summer, she watched that behemoth get launched into the stratosphere.

"I think the U.S. national team has something very unique about it," she said. "For one thing, they're really good. That probably helps. But I think the World Cup in North America, so close to here, was special, and I think you saw the crossover from the U.S. national teams games especially."

Harvey went to Vancouver for the Americans' two games there, and brought three of her players who weren't involved in the tournament - Wales native Jessica Fishlock and Scots Rachel Corsie and Kim Little. They were all spotted regularly by the many fans from the rest of Cascadia who swarmed the shores of False Creek.

"There were Portland Thorns shirts, so many Reign fans... I must have taken 15,000 photos for people up there," Harvey said. "I think the U.S. players and supporters don't necessarily know how lucky they are, because it's not like this everywhere. And we - the outsiders, the internationals, try to educate them on that."

Those members of the women's soccer community who've been involved in the sport for a long time - and yes, I include myself in that group - are already well aware. Indeed, there are plenty of present-day NWSL markets where the buzz isn't nearly what is in Seattle and Portland.

Look no farther than the campus of Rutgers University, where Sky Blue FC perpetually struggles to draw fans and attention to a venue that doesn't often earn the media spotlights of either New York or Philadelphia. Or to Rochester, N.Y., where the Western New York Flash's attendance fell 10 percent this year.

That's right: in a year when hometown hero Abby Wambach finally achieved her lifelong dream of winning the World Cup, the local team in a longtime soccer hotbed drew smaller crowds than it did in a non-World Cup year.

It's clear that the buzz around the NWSL is not spread evenly. I recently asked Spirit midfielder Diana Matheson for her perspective on what it will take to fix that. Matheson, a Princeton product, has had a front row seat to watch the explosion of women's soccer popularity in both the U.S. and her native Canada this summer. I figured she'd have a good take, and she delivered.

"I think you look at the model of the cities where it's working and where it's not," she said. "and if you're not getting fans every year, then you've got to look at making some changes there, and bringing in some cities where you will get fans."

Harvey's team is getting fans, but not as many as you might think. The Reign had the fifth-highest average attendance in the NWSL this year, drawing 4,060 fans per game. Portland, Houston, Chicago and Washington did better.

(Chicago's number was inflated, though, by playing two games at Toyota Park - including a May 9 doubleheader with the Fire that drew 16,017 fans. Take that out and the other nine games drew an average of 3,709 fans each.)

For as successful and popular as Harvey has been, she's well aware that there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I'm sure if you asked Hope [Solo] and [Megan] Rapinoe if you ever thought they'd close down New York City [for the ticker-tape parade after the World Cup], I'm sure they'd say no, and they did it," Harvey said. "It's our responsibility within the game to keep pushing, keep trying to get people involved, and I truly believe that the biggest responsibility we have is that we should put a product on the field that people want to see... I don't think retention is an issue for us, it's letting people know that we exist, and once we do that and they come, they tend to love it."

On Sunday, the NWSL will get perhaps the best chance it has ever had to let people know that it exists. There's no question about the quality of the product on the field, but there are questions about the quality of the product off the field. It's Plush's responsibility to answer them, and there's never been a better time to do so.