Setting the bar: How Amanda Duffy plans to take the NWSL to the next level

The NWSL's new managing director of operations talks to FFT about raising league standards, her long-terms plans and female leadership.

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Amanda Duffy recently joined the National Women’s Soccer League as managing director of operations, a newly created position as the growing but still fledgling league nears a historic fifth season.

Duffy, an ex-professional player, brings to the NWSL a decade of league operations experience on the men’s and women’s side. She was director of operations USL Second Division, as it was known then, from 2008-2010 before becoming senior director of the now defunct USL W-League through the 2014 season.

Most recently, Duffy was president of USL outfit Louisville City FC, where she was promoted twice in three years.

Duffy’s move to the NWSL – made official in early January – brings her back to the women’s game, making her the highest-ranking female executive in a women’s soccer league which largely lacks female coaches, owners and personnel. It’s still rare – and thus, significant – to see a top female executive in the women’s game, which speaks to a larger issue – among many that FourFourTwo USA spoke with Duffy about exclusively in her first days on the job.

Within, Duffy speaks about women’s executives in soccer, her long-term vision for the NWSL, the league’s growing staff and how she’ll work with NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, and the areas of operation she plans to immediately address to set higher minimum standards for the league and its teams.

What’s first on tap for you in this new role?

Going into the fifth season of NWSL, what U.S. Soccer leadership and league leadership want to focus on is obviously bringing in more staff. Obviously, there’s the element of raising the operating level, raising the stability of each of the organizations in the league and just the overall profile of the league. So, what I’ll focus more on in the immediate term is working with the teams, our league standards, league policy regulation and just get the league in a more systematic setup so we’re able to lift the standard from there. We have a baseline level of where we’re operating, where our regulations are – make sure everyone is at the minimum level, and then start to build that framework so that we can raise that to a more professional standard.

Jeff’s focus will shift to focusing on expansion, sponsorship and some of those revenue opportunities that we need as a league. So, it’s going to be a good, collaborative effort and all for the best interest as we go into year five. [We] know that there’s a real growth to be had in the league on so many levels and just a real appetite from the team owners and from U.S. Soccer to get to another level. I’m a part of making that happen.

How do you see that overlapping with and complementing what Jeff Plush is doing?

I think some of it, we’ll see as we go into these waters. Everyone understands that we’ll do what’s in the best interest of the league and how we want to move forward. Jeff’s still the commissioner. Jeff’s still going to be leading that expansion and working with ownership as far as any stabilizing questions, concerns, issues as they might exist. I’m here not even 10 days in at this point (at time of interview), so I don’t really have the full spectrum of everything going on, but I there’s going to be crossover. It’s going to be collaboration between the two of us, but it’s to move the league forward.

We can’t just call ourselves professional but operate under the standard in areas – training facilities, game facilities, front offices, hotels, travels.

When I walked in on Day 1, there’s five people there; two of them were hired in December – last month. So, it’s a small staff. We can’t just look at the teams and say, ‘you need to do A, B, or C to raise the standard.’ We need to do A, B, C to raise our standard from a league office standpoint. So, this is just a step in that process. We’ll have more growth on the front office side of things so that we can push forward.

(Editor’s note: There are currently six league staff members, with current openings for two more and plans to expand beyond that.)

What brought you to this job? Why NWSL?

I’ve been in the women’s game. At this point now, I’ve worked on both sides. When I first started at USL, it was USL 1 and USL 2 at that time, before it merged into USL PRO. So, I was running operation of those two leagues and then moved to the women’s side with the W-League. I felt mat that time that it was really advantageous to come from the men’s side over to the women’s, because the reality is the men’s game is a little bit further ahead.

So, I was able to bring that to the W-League and pull the league – pull the teams – forward, in a sense. And, at the point that I left USL and went to Louisville City, one of the priorities for myself was developing other skill sets, understanding what the owners, what team operators were really doing on the inside. I felt like whether I ultimately ended up staying on the team side, coming back to a league, doing something completely different, if I was going to come back to a league setting, I was going to be better equipped if I really, truly understood what was happening in a team front-office setting. So, I went to Louisville as the vice president of operations in October of ’14. In December of ’14, I was named GM and then a year later, president of the organization. Being a part of a men’s professional team, a start-up business, a league that was pressing at that point – was full-blown into their steps and progress toward Division II status, so really pushing the standards from a league setting and seeing how we had to adapt to that and be a part of that – I feel like Louisville City was among the leaders of organizations that helped be a part and enable that to happen for USL to become provisionally sanctioned as a Division II league. I was really proud of what I accomplished there.

I want to look ahead, too, at years six through 10. What does that look like for the league? At this point, I don’t know that we’re looking at year 10. Who sees what that looks like? Who is planning on what that looks like? What do we want it to look like? I don’t know if that conversation is had; I don’t know if that vision is out there.

Ultimately, though, I like being on the women’s side and I like that I can come back with a really wonderful experience at Louisville on so many levels. To come into the women’s setting – a Division I professional league setting – and hopefully help make an impact and raise the standard, but just stabilize a league and know that there is going to be opportunity for women to play professional soccer for many years to come. [The NWSL Draft] was one of those moments to see that and be a part of that. From my perspective, this is so wonderful that these women have this opportunity. If the league folded tomorrow, these women have had their draft day, and they were called up to play for a professional team that hasn’t always been there. It’s wonderful that it’s here now and I hope to be a part of keeping it here for many, many years.

So was getting back into the women’s game specifically important to you?

Yes. I enjoy being part of the women’s game. I like being a part of giving an opportunity to the women to be able to continue to play. And, the fact that U.S. Soccer is involved and being in that element of things is important, too. I think it’s going to introduce in my career 10 years – almost 10 years was with USL. So, I’m kind of entering a different part of the U.S. Soccer community.

We’re beginning to see more women in positions of power in MLS and other men’s leagues and teams, and in speaking with some of them, they make a very good point: It is equally important to have women in positions of power in the men’s game. Do you see that? And is it also important to have women in leadership roles in a women’s league?

Absolutely. I think more of that will come as we continue to grow. I of course have that process when I’m president of a men’s professional team and now on the women’s side. You go through that. As a woman, you go through that process of, ‘How do you get more women involved? And what is it that is really going to appeal to them to continue to stay involved?’ I look at where we’re at on the women’s side right now, and I think for women, knowing that there is stability in some situations is important. That’s something I think we still need to bring into individual team organizations. We want to bring more women through the business and get them involved at entry levels and then push them up to leadership roles that we on the women’s side need – and this goes for any gender, when it comes to our organizations – we need to make sure that there is stability within those organizations to help bring them through.

I think what’s great about Major League Soccer and Amanda (Vandervort) being part of that leadership and helping drive what they’re doing in Major League Soccer, I think it’s wonderful. Whether it is in Major League Soccer, whether it’s in NWSL, it’s U.S. Soccer, regardless of gender, we just need to find more ways to get women involved in the game at the entry level, but also push them up into those leadership opportunities. And, because I do think that the men’s game is a little bit more advanced, there are ways to bring those women over to the women’s side and pull the women’s game ahead in that operating thought process. Know what first-class looks like. There’s a huge benefit to that.

NEXT: Establishing stability and accountability; long-term goals