National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird faced some unusually hard questions in a news conference Tuesday, on the eve of the league’s annual college draft.
By coincidence, the much-anticipated news of young U.S. star Catarina Macario signing for French club Lyon was made official right as Baird started talking. But Macario’s decision to go abroad upon leaving Stanford early instead of joining the NWSL wasn’t coincidental at all — and it has earned Baird and her league noticeable heat.
Lyon is the world’s top women’s club, standing as the five-time reigning UEFA Women’s Champions League winner. When it calls, it’s almost impossible to turn down.
It’s also no secret around the NWSL that Lyon offered Macario far more money than she could make in the NWSL’s standard salary structure. And because Macario would have had been forced to enter the NWSL through its draft, she’d have had no say in where she ended up.
Macario said Tuesday that picking Lyon was “not anything about salaries really. It’s really just, I’m just fresh out of college [and] I’m just looking for something new.”
She also acknowledged that Lyon’s ownership of Tacoma, Wash.-based NWSL franchise OL Reign could see her loaned to the U.S. club at some point. And she said emphatically that she hopes to play in the NWSL some day.
“I signed with Lyon, and if we think that it would be a mutual benefit to have me join OL Reign, then that would be great,” Macario said. “I would love to play in the league. I’m not sure if it would come from necessarily that partnership, but will it happen one day? Yes.”
But it’s impossible to miss the growing number of major Americans who call European clubs home: Christen Press and Tobin Heath at Manchester United, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle at Manchester City, and Alana Cook at Paris Saint-Germain. Mewis’ former North Carolina Courage teammate Abby Dahlkemper is also reportedly heading to Man City on a long-term deal.
Though the pandemic was a factor in the moves of the Manchester quarter, it wasn’t for Cook or Dahlkemper. The NWSL also took a hit when Australian star Sam Kerr left the Chicago Red Stars for a much bigger salary at Chelsea.
And Macario isn’t the only marquee college prospect to choose Europe over the NWSL in recent years. Deyna Castellanos chose Atletico Madrid so when she left Florida State early a year ago, and Khadija “Bunny” Shaw chose Bordeaux when she moved on from Tennessee in 2018.
Three leading Canadians have never set foot in the NWSL, despite the Canadian Soccer Association bankrolling the salaries of its top players in the league: Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan, Paris Saint Germain’s Ashley Lawrence, and Chelsea’s Jessie Fleming. Buchanan and Lawrence were college teammates at West Virginia, and Fleming played at UCLA.
Pressure is rising on the NWSL and its team owners to up the ante and spend more on salaries in order to keep pace with the rest of the world. Baird said Tuesday that the league is working to do so.
“As our league continues to grow, we are going to continue to invest in our players to attract and retain the best talent,” Baird said. “That takes resources, whether it’s player compensation, facilities, coaching, partnerships, exposure … Those are the kinds of things that will attract the best players in the world, in addition to direct compensation. And our league and owners are committed to providing them.”
Baird was asked specifically whether the draft is increasingly a hindrance to attracting top college products.
“We’re going to continue to partner with the NCAA to do the right thing to continue to engage them and make sure players realize that the NWSL is an incredible option,” she answered. “Whether that makes for rule changes in future years, I don’t know, we’ll see. … “We have a longer-term strategic planning process that is going to really directly attack what we need to do to remain competitive and the best club league in the world.
She added that she is “leaving it to the [league’s] product committee to help us define future rules.”
One rule that might come under scrutiny is the league’s decision this year to not require seniors to register for the draft pool. Instead, all seniors have been ruled automatically eligible for selection.
The decision was made because the coronavirus pandemic caused the NCAA to move the college soccer season to the spring. It will conclude after the NWSL has started playing games this year, with another Challenge Cup tournament set for April and the regular season to start in May.
But a side effect is that teams could potentially draft players who will decide to not play for them. And because college player rights are held until the start of the 2022 preseason, those players could decide to go to Europe and wait out those rights expiring.
“Every single player, with our new rules which were made for the pandemic, has the right to decide whether to play in our league or not,” Baird said. “That is fully in their discretion. This just really allocates the rights among the different clubs.”
Which one might say isn’t exactly full discretion.
Baird was also asked whether next year, the draft rules will change back to what they were before the pandemic started — specifically the one about college seniors formally affirming their participation in the draft.
“We haven’t made any decisions about the 2022 rules yet,” she said. “The product committee will be revisiting that at a later date.”