May 28, 2024

The U.S. women’s national team hit a historic low this summer, exiting the Women’s World Cup in the round of 16 and falling out of the top two of FIFA’s world rankings for the first time since they started keeping track of them in 2003.

A myriad of problems for the USWNT compounded to raise existential questions about the future of U.S. team and its place as the globe’s gold standard. Many of those must be answered by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which is still in search of a new head coach after the resignation of Vlatko Andonovski.

But the National Women’s Soccer League must be part of that conversation, too. Of the 23 players that represented the U.S. at the World Cup, 22 of them play in the NWSL. Andonovski got the USWNT head coach job based entirely on his rise to fame within the NWSL. The league was, up until recently, literally managed and funded by U.S. Soccer, too.

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No, the NWSL is not the reason the U.S. failed at the World Cup — injuries, bad tactics and growing global investment are the primary culprits. No, U.S. players do not need to flock to Europe under the guise of better competition or training — the NWSL remains a competitive league. But the NWSL must progress in lockstep with the USWNT program, or both are at risk of finding themselves in a perpetual state of catch-up as their global challengers invest more heavily into the women’s game.

Every decision that the NWSL makes has implications for the U.S. national team because it remains the primary home of U.S. players. The NWSL is the day-to-day environment for U.S. players and thus the place where much of their current development happens. The layers of that symbiotic relationship run deep.

In light of the USWNT’s poor performance at the Women’s World Cup, the NWSL finds itself at something of an inflection point. For the league’s own benefit just as much as for the benefit of soccer in the United States, here is where the NWSL must be more proactive and find solutions quickly.


Player development: A shared problem for the USWNT and NWSL

Talk of a homegrown player rule in the NWSL has been some form of “imminent” since 2018, depending on which league sources you asked. As the 2023 season nears the playoffs, though, there still is not a system incentivizing clubs to scout, develop and retain young talent.

The standard in Europe, meanwhile, is that elite players should enter professional environments as soon as possible. Look no further than Spain: Their style of fluid, effective possession just won them a World Cup, and that style of play is impressed upon players from the moment they first kick a ball.

The NWSL’s new U-18 roster spots, which were introduced this season, are a step toward getting some of the best young players into the pro level earlier, but the new mechanism falls short of competing with the setups abroad. As it stands, the league does not have a structured academy system.

Youth pathways to NWSL teams now vary wildly from the more formal at places like Racing Louisville and OL Reign to fragmented partnerships or no youth setup at all. Under previous ownership, the Washington Spirit infamously did away with the team’s academy because leadership felt it was competing with other youth teams that they needed as ticket-buying customers for games.

The fragmented youth landscape remains a mess in the U.S., and much of this is a challenge for U.S. Soccer, which folded its own self-run academy system in 2020. The NWSL can’t fix that, but the league should be at the forefront of working to find solutions. To date, however, the topic has largely been an afterthought for the league.

Teenage prodigies are always the exception rather than the rule, but there is already proof that they can thrive when given the opportunity. San Diego Wave playmaker Jaedyn Shaw, 18, has been one of the best players in the league at times this year, her first full season in the league. Angel City forward Alyssa Thompson made the U.S. World Cup roster just after finishing high school. San Diego’s Melanie Barcenas and Washington’s Chloe Ricketts earned game time as 15-year-olds.

The NWSL was forced into allowing the teenagers it does have to play — Portland Thorns midfielder Olivia Moultrie paved this path by taking the NWSL to court in 2021 as a 15-year-old. The league had attempted to block Portland from signing Moultrie — who had already trained with the senior team for two years — based on the arbitrary requirement that a player had to be 18 to sign a contract. The NWSL’s position was a microcosm of their priorities regarding youth development. Only after Moultrie’s legal victory were the doors opened to other teen signings and the U-18 rule codified last year.

The USL is expected to launch a competing first-division women’s league, the USL Super League, next year, which will sit at the top of its established national youth academy system and amateur circuit. This added pressure from the USL coupled with the 2023 Women’s World Cup should be enough to push the NWSL to make strides youth development. Changes are long overdue, and that the league hasn’t stepped up already is a detriment to the U.S. pipeline in a world where teenage peers in other countries can train at teams like Barcelona.

Turning professional out of high school is not the answer for every top prospect, but it must be a viable option.


The NWSL coaching pool must improve

As the NWSL brings more young players into the fold, NWSL teams must also offer a high level of coaching to create the best environment possible.

Up until recently, local connections in the youth game often led to NWSL coaching jobs — most prominently and problematically in Chicago, where Rory Dames oversaw the Red Stars for a decade before resigning amid allegations of abuse. Dames long controlled player pathways to college in the greater Chicago area and leveraged those to make shrewd draft decisions to acquire talent. Under former owner Arnim Whisler, Dames held nearly autonomous power over player decisions.

Separate investigations into allegations of abuse in the NWSL depicted Whisler as someone who knew and enabled Dames, which prompted league officials — at the urging of his own players — to pressure him into selling the team. That transaction closed earlier this month.

The investigations uncovered more shortcomings with hiring coaches that are being addressed. For instance, Christy Holly, whose alleged abuse of players was grimly detailed in the reports, coached two different teams in the league despite lacking the requisite U.S. Soccer coaching license. Dames failed to hold a U.S. Soccer A License for most of his time in Chicago, too. Both coaches are prominent examples of the league’s faulty, unchecked hiring structure in the past.

As a result of the investigations, all coaches and staff who will have direct contact with players are required to undergo a background check by the league. By all accounts, there has since been greater due diligence in preventing the hiring of any coaches with nefarious backgrounds. That must continue as a bare minimum, of course.

Beyond that, the actual coaching happening on the field must continue to improve. The NWSL is just beginning to enter the point of its existence where former players are earning high-level coaching licenses, aided in part by a joint initiative between the league and its players union to offer coaching courses to active players. A few of those former NWSL players are already assistant coaches in the league. That’s a good start.

As the league stabilizes, however, it must find ways to attract top coaching talent. Historically, NCAA head-coaching jobs paid more and offered far greater job security. That kept many top coaches away from the professional game. It appeared that might change with the Orlando Pride‘s hiring of former UCLA coach and NCAA title winner Amanda Cromwell ahead of the 2022 season, but Cromwell barely made it to the start of the season before being suspended — and, months later, terminated — for alleged retaliation against players.

Some NWSL clubs have created environments to attract top coaches. But more of those will be needed to guide the next generation of U.S. players.


International windows, a misaligned calendar and the transfer market

The NWSL’s schedule has long been a point of pain for the NWSL, and that is not a problem in a vacuum. Historically, the NWSL has played through international windows, the time when players are required to be available for their national teams — and typically a long flight away.

“I think for me, as an international player, not missing games when you go to a World Cup would be really an important thing I’d like to see changed,” Angel City and New Zealand defender Ali Riley said earlier this year. “It’s something that, when I speak to colleagues who play, whether it’s for New Zealand or other teams when I was playing in England and Germany and Sweden, it’s just that [they] really cannot understand why the league would play and [why] a player [would have] to miss games for a league.”

The NWSL mostly played through the 2015 and 2019 World Cups. This year, the league took a break from the regular season but still played its secondary Challenge Cup competition throughout the World Cup — and curiously resumed the regular season on the weekend of the World Cup final.

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Among the options that have been discussed internally within league ownership is a switch to a fall-to-spring schedule (which the USL Super League plans to play) to avoid major tournaments each summer. Discussions heated up last winter after a mostly private fight between NWSL board members and U.S. Soccer was settled ahead of the World Cup.

The Challenge Cup is set to be scrapped next year as part of a league plan to take a break from competitive games during the Paris Olympics. Still, the league’s spring-to-fall schedule remains opposite that of Europe’s season, meaning that the big summer transfer window falls in the middle of the NWSL season. Historically, teams have been reluctant to sign internationals who would arrive near the end of the season and miss stretches of summer games due to international duties. Respecting FIFA dates solves a lot of these problems.

Doing away with the Challenge Cup, which was used by many teams to provide minutes to depth players, creates a different issue related to player development: How will those players at the back end of rosters gain experience? While they are not players challenging for call-ups to the U.S. team, they still affect the overall quality of the NWSL.

Discussions around the need for a reserve league have bubbled up recently, according to sources, although it is unclear how serious or realistic that is considering the league’s typically slow pace to implement change.


Following the money and attracting more fans

The tireless debate about which league is “the best” is mostly for entertainment, but the NWSL requires continued business growth to maintain a place in that argument on the field. Cash is king and, ultimately, drives further investment into player salaries. Media rights deals provide the league and its stars with a larger platform and, in turn, attract more stars.

Earlier this month, the Women’s Super League shared a 10-year plan to make the English top flight the first billion-dollar women’s soccer league in the world. What is the NWSL’s 10-year plan? That perennial question remains unanswered.

The NWSL just collected $53 million dollar expansion fees each for a team outside San Francisco and a team in Boston. Currently, the NWSL is also in the middle of media rights negotiations for its expiring deal with CBS/Paramount — commissioner Jessica Berman and owners across the NWSL are hopeful for a big payday to drive revenue to the league for other endeavors.

The current WSL media rights deal in England is reportedly worth £8 million per season, which is significantly more than the reported $4.5 million the NWSL got from CBS over the past three seasons. (The NWSL also covers production costs for all its games, which makes that number even smaller.) An ill-fated partnership with Twitch for international viewers ended early, leaving the NWSL to stream games internationally for free on its website in 2023.

Berman said recently that she hopes to have an announcement of a new rights deal before the NWSL Championship on Nov. 11. The league’s next deal, which sources say could end up with multiple partners, needs to bring in more revenue to reinvest into its product, and it needs to put the NWSL in front of more eyeballs.

Visibility is a basic ingredient of a league that attracts fans and top players. DAZN’s strong coverage recently of the UEFA Champions League serves as a case study in investing in the presentation of a product: the tournament brought in 50 million views globally on DAZN’s platforms.

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Gomez can’t believe FIFA overlooked Girma in NWSL best XI

Herculez Gomez questions the FIFA 23 NWSL best XI as the #1 pick of the 2022 draft Naomi Girma is left out.

The league has made strides in visibility in other areas. Berman pointed to the recently announced partnership with EA Sports that places the league’s teams and players in the famous soccer video game formerly called “FIFA” and soon to be released under a new name, “EA Sports FC.”

“I can’t overstate the importance of this when we think about fan development when we think about reaching new fans,” Berman said. “Gamification is a key objective in thinking about how we get young people to know about our league, know our players, follow us.”

The NWSL also surpassed one million fans in total attendance this year, marking the second straight season achieving this.


Merely existing is no longer enough

There had long been warning signs of the USWNT’s recent World Cup letdown ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Other countries with strong soccer backgrounds had begun investing in their women’s programs and the U.S. remained rigid in its style of play despite overt warning signs like last year’s three-game losing streak, the team’s first in 30 years.

Similarly, the NWSL finds itself in a similar place as the U.S. national team: for a while, the NWSL was the best by default. Ten years ago, investment in women’s soccer was minuscule compared to today. That the NWSL existed at all as a professional league — and that it was home to most of the players from the best international team in the world — was reason enough to rank it among the world’s best.

The landscape has changed, however. With major investments in England’s WSL, in Europe’s Champions League, and even from individual clubs in Mexico, the NWSL now has to compete for players. Warning signs have long been there that the NWSL cannot continue to be a top league in the world simply by existing.

For years under previous eras of leadership, the league remained reactionary. The NWSL must continue to raise standards, innovate and globalize. Otherwise, it runs the risk of watching other competitions surpass it — a position U.S. Soccer and the USWNT are now battling, too.

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