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U.S. women’s soccer confronts star players' embrace of England’s fast-growing league

"Competition is the ultimate driver of success,” Press said in her first remarks as a Manchester United player. "For us to continue to be successful, we need other leagues to be successful."

Christen Press is one of five U.S. national team stars who have moved to England this winter, giving the FAWSL a huge boost of publicity.
Christen Press is one of five U.S. national team stars who have moved to England this winter, giving the FAWSL a huge boost of publicity.Read moreSteve Luciano / AP

Although many major players in the National Women’s Soccer League have moved abroad lately, the league itself clearly isn’t going anywhere. The successes of the summer’s Challenge Cup and ongoing Fall Series, both as player development platforms and television products, have proven that.

But there is fair concern about whether the NWSL will be able to retain its title as the world’s best women’s soccer league. A spending spree by teams in England’s FA Women’s Super League has sent a signal that they intend to upend the old order.

There were factors beyond money, chiefly the coronavirus pandemic. As it continued to wreak havoc on American sports and society, the appeal of leaving the country grew.

But that signal still came through loud and clear, and it was amplified by the five U.S. national team stars who crossed the Atlantic: Christen Press and Tobin Heath to Manchester United, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle to Manchester City, and Alex Morgan to Tottenham Hotspur. They’ve been joined by a wave of NWSL veterans from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Australia.

» READ MORE: Tobin Heath wanted to play in England for a while. The pandemic opened the door to do it.

Most of those departures come with the disclaimer that they’re short-term loans, not full-blown exits. But the moves English teams made to raid other European leagues were for the long term.

Manchester City convinced English veterans Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood to come home from France’s Lyon, the biggest club in all of women’s soccer. Everton made a splash by signing French national team stalwart Valérie Gauvin. Arsenal signed Switzerland’s Noëlle Maritz from German giant VfL Wolfsburg, and acquired two of the NWSL’s Australians in Steph Catley and Lydia Williams.

Chelsea was the biggest mover of all, buying Danish star forward Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg for a reported $355,000 — believed to be the largest transfer fee in women’s soccer history. That followed landing Australian superstar Sam Kerr last November from the Chicago Red Stars for a $400,000 annual salary.

Those deals got the attention of Press and other American players who’ve faced those big names on the world’s big stages.

“If this country decides to invest on the women’s side, they have more resources than most, so there’s a huge opportunity there,” Press said this week as United officially introduced her. “At this point, you have a lot of the best players in the world already here, and so that makes competition great … and that’s exactly what you want as a player.”

Kerr’s move still resonates

The Red Stars and most clubs worldwide couldn’t match Chelsea’s offer to Kerr. But the move forced the NWSL to introduce a new pot of money so clubs could pay select players above-standard wages.

Before the pandemic struck, some teams had big plans for those funds. Portland was in talks with French winger Kadidiatou Diani; the Utah Royals were near sensational deals for German playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán and French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.

When the pandemic is over, NWSL teams should be well-equipped to take big swings again. In fact, had the pandemic not happened, most of this summer’s departures probably wouldn’t have happened either.

The Americans who went abroad certainly would have stayed home to prepare for an on-time Olympics. The national team’s collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation has a strict limit on how many players can be abroad at once, and it was temporarily relaxed this summer.

So it’s easy enough to imagine Press being Royals teammates with Marozsán and Bouhaddi, and being Thorns teammates with Diani.

England’s American revolution

Instead, Press and Heath are on the red side of Manchester; Mewis and Lavelle are on the blue side; and Morgan is in London. Their impact has already been thunderous. NBC took an interest in FAWSL broadcast rights, and signed a deal to stream 50 games this season online.

United’s online store sold out of printing for Heath and Press jerseys in just a few days.

Morgan’s move put a cherry on top. Off the field, she brought more social media followers to Tottenham individually than the club’s men’s team’s accounts have in total. On the field, the club got her an exemption from Britain’s two-week quarantine mandate for Americans entering the country, allowing her to potentially debut in the FA Cup on Saturday against Arsenal.

» READ MORE: How to watch the game that could be Alex Morgan’s Tottenham debut

All of that impact has been made while only Mewis has actually played in a game yet. Consider, then, what’s still to come — especially when the stars play against each other.

While the spotlight might not last long, the English league has a serious opportunity this season to make an impact that will linger into the future. The brand names of big English clubs are some of the biggest in the soccer world, and when they invest in their women’s teams, the effect is amplified.

“The history that goes into putting on this crest is something that I’ve never experienced,” Press said. “It’s something that no club has in the United States, and even the other international teams I’ve played for don’t have this type of rich history of football. So it’s a huge honor — in a lot of ways, it feels surreal.”

» READ MORE: A Philadelphia Union assistant coach helped turn Christen Press into a USWNT star

The NWSL’s future is still bright

Hopefully England’s rise will push the NWSL to further up the ante.

“It is my belief and many Americans' belief that competition is the ultimate driver of success,” Press said. “For us to continue to be successful, we need other leagues to be successful, and we need investment in the women’s global game, and that’s the only way to keep pushing the bar and the standard. So I think it is a very welcome thing to have more competition in the status of the leagues.”

To be clear, plenty of NWSL owners and executives are ready to step up. But they understandably aren’t rushing. The pandemic is far from over, and there’s a long history of women’s leagues spending money too fast.

Just as importantly, there are still plenty of big names in the NWSL, and there are plenty of great players beyond them. North Carolina’s Debinha, Sky Blue’s Margaret Purce and big-time Portland rookie Sophia Smith are just a few examples.

But the point has been made. Indeed, look no further than Press and Heath’s new home. Manchester United didn’t have a women’s team until 2018, and the club was widely criticized for dragging its feet. Now the women’s side has the star power that the men’s side has long been known for.

“It’s exactly what we need and what we want to see: more organizations investing in the women’s game because they see the value, because they see the opportunity and the potential,” Press said. “I think it is something that’s contagious and catches fire, and the other clubs investing in their teams 100% inspired this. And what you hope is that it inspires the next club, and that’s how the global game moves forward.”

For now, as with so many things in life, NWSL fans have to wait a while. It’s only natural for there to be a period of uncertainty.

So forgive fans who wonder aloud about the NWSL’s future. Their fears might be overblown, but their standards are rightly high — and their impatience is famous. The league’s power brokers know that better than anyone.