The NWSL isn’t going away, but it can’t stand still
You might have noticed that the National Women’s Soccer League has made a lot of news lately. You might also have noticed that much of said news hasn’t had anything to do with actual soccer played in the league.
You might have noticed that the National Women's Soccer League has made a lot of news lately.
You might also have noticed that much of said news hasn't had anything to do with actual soccer played in the league.
Even if you are a believer in the theory that all publicity is good publicity, you might admit that at a certain point, this isn't the best thing for the NWSL's efforts to gain wider exposure and acceptance among soccer fans.
The league will have another opportunity to do something about the situation this weekend. Actually, to be precise, it will have five opportunities - one each in Boston, Houston, Orlando and suburbs of Chicago and New York.
(I'd like to think most readers of this blog follow women's soccer enough to know that those five cities are NWSL markets, even if you didn't know which teams play at home this weekend until now.)
The last of those opportunities will come on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time, when the two most prominent players in the league right now play against each other.
Note that I did not say the two best players in the league, or the two top scorers, or even the two best players for the U.S. national team independent of their club form.
I said the most prominent. Because they are Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd.
The former, of the Seattle Reign, has commanded the national spotlight lately by taking a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner to express solidarity with those protesting treatment of African-Americans by police and the judicial system. She has done so while wearing her club's colors, and she has done so twice while wearing her national team's colors.
You don't have to be a fan of soccer, never mind women's soccer, to have heard about Rapinoe's actions. Nor do you have to be a sports fan to have been in or exposed to a deafening debate about the boundaries of free speech, political protest and society's comfort zones.
The latter, of the Houston Dash -
Well, let's stop there for a moment. You do know that Carli Lloyd plays for the Houston Dash, right?
And you do know that Megan Rapinoe plays for the Seattle Reign, right?
I thought so, but I just wanted to make sure.
Lloyd took a torrent of criticism from the fanatical hardcore of the women's soccer community because she was not sufficiently transparent about having a previously scheduled personal engagement on the weekend after the medal round of the Olympic women's soccer tournament.
That personal engagement was scheduled for that time on the assumption that the U.S. women's team would reach the medal round, which would have allowed the players to rest on the weekend in question before returning to the field with their club teams.
It was a quite reasonable assumption from the time the personal engagement was set up until approximately 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time on August 12 - also known as the end of the U.S.-Sweden quarterfinal game. All of a sudden, the Americans' time as part of the competition in Brazil was over.
Some players chose to return to their NWSL clubs as quickly as possible, regardless of the the previously established deadline. Others, such as Crystal Dunn, made different choices.
Lloyd was among the latter group. For this she was convicted in the court of public opinion on charges of not being sufficiently devoted to the cause. Her club team's head coach was the prosecution's star witness, though he was later accused of not telling the whole truth while on the stand.
She was also found guilty of two other charges. One was the aforementioned insufficient transparency, for which there was more evidence - including impolite treatment of a high-profile reporter in Houston.
The other was scheduling part of her book tour for the weekend of the NWSL playoffs' first round before the Dash's slim postseason hopes were officially extinguished. This charge's evidence was the clearest, even for her defenders.
Just when the noise from those controversies had quieted down, Lloyd stoked another uproar Sunday night. Asked live on national television by Fox Sports' Jenny Taft for an opinion on Rapinoe's protests, Lloyd called them "a distraction on a lot of different fronts."
The ensuing bedlam on Twitter drowned out the fact that Lloyd didn't say exactly what Rapinoe was distracting from. Nor did Lloyd offer her own personal opinion on whether she agreed with Rapinoe's actions.
Many observers drew conclusions without having all the necessary facts in hand to do so. It looked a bit like the previous time that happened, though it was on the much bigger stage of a national team event.
I know I may be overdoing the metaphor, but it just makes too much sense. The furore around Lloyd has seemed to me at times to be a bit of a show trial.
Lloyd's case docket is nothing compared to NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush's, though. He has been dealing with a litany of charges since the day he took the job.
You may recall that last year, I made a metaphor out of his not wearing any rain gear amid a storm that soaked his presentation of the NWSL Shield trophy to the Reign.
Things have only gotten worse for Plush this season.
He hasn't gotten the league a robust enough national TV deal. He allowed the Western New York Flash to play a league game earlier this year on a field set up entirely within the outfield of a baseball diamond. He didn't ensure that the league went dark during all U.S. women's national team camps, and didn't stand up sufficiently to the U.S. Soccer Federation's scheduling of national team games during the league season. He doesn't talk to the press enough (though he did for this story). He was late to join Twitter. He hasn't secured enough commercial sponsors. He hasn't or isn't or or didn't or won't…
Okay, that's enough. I've criticized Plush plenty, but not all of the NWSL's problems are his fault. And there's no question that the league has done far better than its predecessors, Women's Professional Soccer and the Women's United Soccer Association. That the NWSL reached a fourth season and those leagues did not still counts for something.
Everyone knows the NWSL can do better. Everyone knows how much it can grow. And with no major tournaments on the calendar until 2019, everyone knows that now is the time to make that growth happen.
A recent trip I took to Portland happened to coincide with the return of the Thorns' U.S. national team players from the Olympics. It was an ideal time to get their perspectives on the NWSL's present and future.
"The league is at such a different point from after the last Olympics [and] even after the last World Cup," midfielder Tobin Heath said. "It's obviously something we need to build on, and these next two years are key. It's kind of cool in a way that we don't have this second focus with other world championships on the horizon. We can just invest in the league and growing the sport."
Meghan Klingenberg had plenty to say, and not just because she's naturally talkative. The native of Pittsburgh's suburbs played for three teams in the Women's Professional Soccer era and is now on her second NWSL team, with a three-year stint in Sweden in between.
Along the way, she has seen the highs of winning Olympic gold and a World Cup for the national team - and the lows that come with coming up short of those titles. Just as importantly, she has seen the impact that those successes and failures have on the health of the club game.
The triumph in Canada last year gave the NWSL a big shot in the arm. Will the league suffer because the U.S. came up short in Brazil?
Klingenberg isn't worried.
"The NWSL is a growing league, and you can see the numbers," she said. "Regardless of the Olympics, we're doing well."
The Thorns are doing especially well - drawing some of the world's largest crowds for any club women's soccer team, in fact. They are, as Tobin Heath put it, "that benchmark of where the league is going and where we want the league to go."
If you think Portland's standard is unreachable, think about the high bar the U.S. women's national team has set for so many years. Other nations have risen to it. Why can't that happen at the club level too?
As Heath said, what Portland has done "only helps the other cities by looking to us as the standard for the NWSL."
Klingenberg's take was in line with her own personality. She brought her trademark effusiveness to the issue, but also brought a veteran's sense of what has been.
"I mean, heck, I want to see crowds like this at every single venue," she quipped, and if you've ever talked to her, you know exactly how it sounded. "I don't know if that's realistic, but there were 19,000 people here when we didn't even have national team players on the field… I want that to be able to spread throughout the rest of the league. Hopefully we'll be able to have really stable and good ownership and franchises where we can develop quality coaches and develop quality players, and make sure that we're developing them into the national team to compete on the world stage in the years to come."
Growing the league will require, among other things, literally growing the league. Having just 10 teams won't cut it, especially when large markets like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco aren't included.
But it doesn't matter how many fans in those cities want to have NWSL teams if there aren't potential owners willing to pay for them. This is the hardest part of the equation, as Seattle Reign defender Lauren Barnes knows all too well.
Barnes began her professional career in 2011 with the Philadelphia Independence. When the Independence and WPS folded, she was out of a job. Fortunately, she was able to resume her professional career when the NWSL launched, joining the Reign for their inaugural season. She has been in Seattle ever since.
Of course, potential team owners are easier to find when demand for teams is proven. And creating awareness of a product helps create demand for it. Which is why Barnes wants the NWSL to put more firepower into marketing itself, not just in its existing markets but across the country.
"There are some cities that are soccer-crazy and some that aren't, but I think if the NWSL can continue to help market the league as much as possible in the offseason, I think it would only bring more energy and more fans as the season approaches," Barnes said. "And I know it's tough because the season's so short. That's why the marketing, I think, is so important."
No one markets the league better than its players, and they know it. They also know that stature gives them real power to speak up when the league doesn't treat them with the professionalism they deserve.
Veterans and young players alike understand that there will always be limitations on what a young and financially constrained league can do. But that won't stop any of the players I talked to from making themselves heard when needed.
"We're the players living it," Klingenberg said. "We're the people that are directly involved and are the most visible parts of the organization. It's only good for the NWSL. Having players like Alex [Morgan] and Pinoe [Megan Rapinoe] and even players that aren't on the national team being able to speak up about their situations, I think, is incredibly important for the league to be able to grow."
The example set by those three has rubbed off on one of the U.S. national team's brightest young stars, Lindsey Horan. Now that she is a national team regular, the 22-year-old Colorado native is starting to find her voice too.
"What [the veterans] do and learning from them, that's giving us fuel for the future," she said. "And especially for all the young players, it's going to help us out a lot."
Barnes spoke for the league's rank and file.
"Just knowing that when teams travel, everything is going to be taken care of, home or away, whatever it is - that's huge, because I think that attracts big names," she said. "They want to be taken care of, and we should be. We're professionals at the end of the day."
Barnes credited the Reign's ownership group, led by owner Bill Predmore, for being "in it 100 percent." And the big names have come, from Dutch striker Manon Melis to head coach Laura Harvey.
After hearing from those players, I turned to the NWSL's top off-the-field power brokers: Plush and Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson.
Plush was bullish. It's his job to be, of course, but he backed it up with substance.
"Both the World Cup and the Olympics gave us a nice bump, and a great opportunity to be potentially sampled by some people that haven't seen our product yet," he told me. "The exciting thing is, none of that bump that grew from the World Cup this year went away... At the end of the day we have the quality of the players, the quality of the matches, things that can excite a marketplace."
For all that has changed in Paulson's life as he has embraced soccer, this much hasn't: He has a pretty good sense of what might be a winning bet. He's convinced now that women's soccer is one.
"Coming at it from an outsider's perspective, I always had a question about women's professional soccer in the United States from a product standpoint - is this a tenable product here, is there a product issue that it just doesn't resonate?" he told me. "Now, having been immersed in this thing, I can unequivocally say there's not a product issue. It's an absolutely terrific product [and] there's an audience for the product… Teams that are doing it right are 100 percent proving this thing out."
And yes, it helps if you can use the infrastructure of a Major League Soccer team to help run the NWSL team.
"You see in Orlando and in Houston how easy it is to make it work," Paulson said. "Yeah, they're not doing the numbers that the Thorns are, but they're still doing really, really strong numbers. Those are break even-to-profitable operations, both of them."
That doesn't mean "independent" teams can't succeed. But it's increasingly hard to avoid believing that they face a much steeper climb to success.
"Seattle would be the example I'd give you of another market that's having to go out and scrape on their own, and do facility deals and having their own staff," Paulson said. "They probably didn't get off to the start that a lot of people would have expected, given the strength of that market. But with time, they've built their audience. They've definitely grown their attendance, and they've got a relevant brand in the Seattle market."
Plush's past remarks on expansion have given the impression that the league would be equally welcoming to MLS-backed and independent ownership groups. He told me for this story that he is "very much still open" to the latter group, but the former has advantages that simply can't be ignored.
"There's no question that if you come to the table as a MLS club, especially in MLS in 2016 where things have evolved so much over the last 10-12 years - stadiums, infrastructures, academies and all those things - you clearly have a platform to build from that is materially different from others," he said. "I've never tried to convey that it's not an advantage, but it doesn't foreclose that there could be other really good situations that make sense for us."
Paulson emphasized that you don't have to do things at Portland's scale in order to be successful.
"I think it's way too easy of a reaction for people in the soccer community to say, 'That's just Portland. They're different. It's just a soccer hotbed there, and they're an outlier, and everything that they're saying doesn't matter,'" Paulson said. "I actually take a little bit of umbrage to that response… There's a lot of other markets that are proven to be good soccer markets."
The key is living up to the same word that the players you heard from earlier kept invoking: professional.
In some ways, though, it's an abstract ideal. How does one turn it into concrete execution? Paulson spoke at length on the subject:
Paulson also dropped some none-too-subtle hints about owners of other MLS clubs who've been thinking about launching NWSL teams. Rumors fly constantly about which of them might be next to take the plunge.
Real Salt Lake has long been a possibility. So has Vancouver, though their interest is said to run hot and cold. Some fans hope New York City FC can strike a deal with Sky Blue FC, which would make sense for reasons beyond their shared jersey color. Then again, some veteran observers are still haunted by the collapse of Sky Blue's talks with the New York Red Bulls a few years ago.
Earlier this month, forthcoming MLS expansion Los Angeles FC staked its own place in line. That might be the least surprising candidate of all: the club has already committed to a U.S. Soccer Development Academy girls program, and its star-studded ownership group includes Mia Hamm.
I'm more certain of this: for most of the MLS clubs interested in launching NWSL teams, the biggest hurdle to overcome is money. That's where the track record established by Portland, Orlando and Houston really matters.
But as any investor knows well, past performance is not always indicative of future results. That could prove especially true in this coming offseason, because the U.S. national team's collective bargaining talks have the potential to completely upend the NWSL's financial model.
We know the players' union's primary goal is to get paid equally to the U.S. men's team. I can't speak for the union, but most outside observers have envisioned at least the possibility that "equal pay" could mean not just an equal value, but an equal structure too. That would mean shifting the annual salaries and benefits that national team players receive from U.S. Soccer's payroll to the NWSL's.
Yes, there's a certain degree to which that would be only symbolic, given U.S. Soccer's overall investment in the league. But the global standard is that salaries of men's players - and women's players outside North America - are paid by clubs, not national teams.
I asked Plush and Paulson if NWSL team owners are preparing for the possibility of such a shift. Which is not to say that it will happen, or that it's being discussed at the bargaining table at all. I have no idea. And it's not their place to talk about the national team's bargaining process - indeed, they could get in a lot of trouble for it.
But both men got the point of being asked about potential scenarios. Plush's view is that it's part of the league's planning not just for next year, but for many years to come.
"It doesn't tie directly to what's going on with the CBA negotiations - it goes to us making sure that we are doing the proper planning that we as a league need to do anyway," he said.
Paulson reflected carefully. He's known for saying things in public that maybe he shouldn't, especially on Twitter, and he made sure he chose his words here.
The follow-up question was obvious, and Paulson knew he had opened the door to it. If current NWSL team owners can't reach that level, what happens?
Paulson paused again before proceeding.
A lot of people in the NWSL and the American soccer community as a whole have been waiting a long time to hear those words from someone with so much influence.
To be clear, that doesn't mean the teams in question - and I'll leave it to you all to deduce which they are - will go away or be sold any time soon.
Plush's goal is for all of the ownership groups in the league to continue to work together and support each other.
"I don't worry about how we endeavor to work together," he said. "We need to drive our brand forward and our revenues forward, whether that's local revenues or national revenues or international revenues. You can create structures to allow for the reality that different markets are going to be different in [various] ways. And sometimes that is commercial viability, but the important thing is to have the right people who are committed for the long term."
It's going to be a while before before the infrastructure of American soccer is so secure that we don't have to talk about it anymore. In fact, we might never get there.
But the biggest lesson I take from reporting this story is that there is a significant number of people in significant places across the NWSL who are deeply committed to getting professional women's soccer in America right.
There are also a lot of people out there who really badly want to turn attention back to matters on the field - and rightly so.
It's too cliché at times to say that the NWSL needs to strike while the iron is hot. But the iron is hot right now. Here's hoping that the league hits it hard, and is able to build a machine that launches the game into the future it so deeply deserves.
The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.