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Why Philadelphia should remain an NWSL expansion contender

The region has over 20 years of women's soccer history, a big fan base, and a talent pool that goes far beyond Carli Lloyd. The only piece missing is the most important one: a big-money owner.

Carli Lloyd knows as well as anyone that Philadelphia has a big women's soccer fan base.
Carli Lloyd knows as well as anyone that Philadelphia has a big women's soccer fan base.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The NWSL will hold its latest expansion draft on Thursday, heralding the return of pro women’s soccer to the fan-rich and talent-rich (and in many ways, generally rich) hotbeds of Los Angeles and San Diego.

Those watching the 7 p.m. telecast (CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, and the league’s Twitch and YouTube channels) will likely see lots of hype about the players whom Angel City and San Diego pick.

Certainly everyone will hear a lot about the mega-stars the clubs have already signed, headlined by Christen Press (Angel City) and Alex Morgan (San Diego) returning to their Southern California roots — with hordes of jersey-buying social media followers in tow.

Other notable signings so far include Angel City’s Julie Ertz and Sarah Gorden and San Diego’s Kailen Sheridan and Abby Dahlkemper.

But there are some things viewers likely won’t hear about, such as why six of the league’s 10 teams traded for full or partial draft protection. (Among the answers: The players are fed up with not having free agency, and used trade leverage to show it.)

Or how Angel City and San Diego broke league rules to announce the signings of Press and Morgan before they were official. (A quick check of Twitter will give an earful from annoyed fans.)

» READ MORE: Christen Press' time at Manchester United gave English women's soccer a big boost

Then there are subjects we don’t know if we’ll hear about. That list starts with the NWSL’s plans for potential further expansion.

It’s been six years and three league executives since then-commissioner (and they haven’t all had that title) Jeff Plush said the league’s goal was to have 14 teams by 2020. That didn’t happen. Angel City and San Diego have brought the total to 12.

But expansion has remained a topic of conversation through the tenures of Plush’s successors Amanda Duffy, Lisa Baird, and current interim CEO Marla Messing, and it won’t go away. Just as the WNBA is too small for its talent pool, the NWSL needs expansion to compete with European clubs who want players from here.

20 years of history

The list of potential expansion cities has grown and shrunk over the years, but a few places have been perennials: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Philadelphia. Rumors fly about each of them every now and again, with chatter about the Bay Area especially loud right now. While the noise hasn’t been loud about Philadelphia for a while, people in power are well aware of the region’s two decades of pro women’s soccer history.

In the 2000s, the Women’s United Soccer Association’s Charge drew some of the league’s largest crowds, and Lincoln Financial Field was a fine host of the 2003 World Cup. In the 2010s, Women’s Professional Soccer’s Independence made back-to-back title games and helped bring supporters’ clubs into the women’s soccer fold after years of rejection.

» READ MORE: Looking back at the Philadelphia Charge’s first season, 20 years after pro women’s soccer’s arrival here

Because of the revelation of sexual coercion allegations from former player Sinead Farrelly against then-manager Paul Riley, the Independence’s achievements have been somewhat tainted. But the construction of a long-term fan base for women’s soccer in Philadelphia transcends any individual. The U.S. women’s national team has come to town plenty often, and always draws well.

Of course, another individual has had a very big impact: Carli Lloyd. When Lincoln Financial Field hosted the largest-ever crowd for a stand-alone U.S. women’s friendly — 49,504 in August 2019 — the Delran product was a big reason. When 9,532 fans went to Subaru Park in October to watch Gotham FC play the Washington Spirit, Lloyd was rightly the center of attention.

The Union were paying attention before then, too. They offered in May to have Subaru Park be a backup host for the NWSL Challenge Cup final if needed, which it ultimately wasn’t.

What about the future? There isn’t a Lloyd-level star yet, but there are plenty of locals in the NWSL.

Sicklerville’s Tziarra King just finished her second season in the NWSL, as a popular striker for Tacoma, Wash.-based OL Reign — and brought veteran teammate Jessica Fishlock to town this week with a team videographer.

West Chester’s Phoebe McClernon played 21 games for the Orlando Pride this year, and is likely to play even more next year after Penn State alumna Ali Krieger was traded to Gotham FC with her wife, Ashlyn Harris.

Gotham’s roster has three local products: Erica Skroski (Galloway Township, N.J.), Gina Lewandowski (Coopersburg, Pa.), and Nicole Baxter (Pennington, N.J.).

» READ MORE: Carli Lloyd thanks Philadelphia soccer fans for giving her a NWSL homecoming game she’ll never forget

Next spring, they’ll be joined by Voorhees’ Amirah Ali. She was drafted from Rutgers last January by the Portland Thorns, but decided to stay with the Scarlet Knights when the pandemic moved the college soccer season to the spring (which the NWSL allowed).

Ali went on to earn first-team All-America honors that season, then this fall — when the schedule went back to normal — led the Scarlet Knights to their first final four since 2015, and just the second in team history. She is reportedly heading to San Diego in a deal for expansion draft protection.

The missing piece

So the fan base for women’s professional soccer is here, and the talent pool is here. A suitable stadium is obviously here in Subaru Park, whose professional surroundings — including a natural-grass field — make it the required venue for a top-level team. Villanova Stadium, where the Charge played, won’t cut it anymore. Nor will the small venues at West Chester and Widener, where the Independence played — and they never should have once the Union’s home opened.

What’s missing for a Philadelphia NWSL club is a potential team owner.

There’s no sign of anyone willing to step forward and spend the many millions of dollars it would take to run a team at the elite level that the players deserve, and that fans deserve so they can watch a contender.

Contending means not just playing games at Subaru Park, but having top-class staff, training facilities, and behind-the-scenes amenities. Angel City, San Diego, Louisville, and perennial standard-bearer Portland are among the teams that have all that. Expansion teams that don’t will be caught out in a hurry, especially when they’re in the nation’s fourth-largest media market.

» READ MORE: These are the players to know who could be the USWNT's new stars

It’s natural to look to the Union for a potential ownership leader. But local women’s soccer fans who also follow the local pro men’s team know the Union have never spent to their full potential on the senior team. Even newly minted fans who’ve come aboard amid recent playoff runs can see that.

Until the Union have fully polished their current house, it might not be the best idea to ask them for a second one.

Also a factor there: The Union wouldn’t be able to build a strong women’s pro team through a youth academy, because the NWSL doesn’t yet have a homegrown player system (though it badly needs one). So there would be no way to bring Brenden and Paxten Aaronson’s sister to the pros beyond a college draft.

And yes, you read that right — there’s another big-time soccer player in the Aaronson family. Jaden is a freshman at Shawnee High, and had four goals and two assists in 10 games this fall.

Instead of looking to the Union, fans of women’s pro soccer might look to the other end of the Blue Route. The really big money in the region these days is in the pharmaceutical companies that have planted major flags in Chester County. Get their pioneers interested and involved, and the NWSL would surely listen. (The same advice stands for the WNBA, by the way.)

The fans can tell the corporate money movers and shakers how ready they are for a team. (This is Philadelphia, after all, so of course they will.) Lloyd, Ertz, Mitts, King, McClernon and Ali will tell of the support they’ve seen. So will other area products from over the years such as Jill Loyden, Jen Hoy, and Nicole Barnhart — not to mention the many U.S. stars who’ve played national team games here.

But getting an NWSL team here won’t just require tellers. It will require listeners, too, especially those ready to take a leap of faith. Until they step up, Philadelphia is likely to remain on the outside looking in.