Analysis

The Boston Breakers' demise is another step toward an unrecognizable NWSL, but in which direction is the league headed?

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley

U.S. women's soccer's longest-standing brand folded as the NWSL pushes toward a more ambitious future. But is that a fruitful one?

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The National Women’s Soccer League is at a crossroads, and whether the Boston Breakers’ demise is a step toward a stronger future or a harbinger for the return of past ghosts is an answer that will require more time than our attention-deficient world would like.

But make no mistake: The 2017-18 offseason will define the NWSL. In five years, you’ll hardly recognize this league.

News of the Breakers folding reasserts that. It’s truly – if not tragically – symbolic that the Breakers brand would fold in these defining months of the league as it pushes into a more ambitious NWSL 2.0.

The Breakers name was the only one to take part in every season of top-flight professional women’s soccer in the U.S., from WUSA (2001-03), to WPS (2009-11) and NWSL (2013-present). It was once home to some of the world’s best players – Kelly Smith, Maren Meinert and Kristine Lilly among them – and coaches, including the late Tony DiCicco in WPS.

The modern-day Breakers, however, failed to ever truly gain traction. They are the only one of the eight original NWSL teams to never make the playoffs, finishing bottom or second-bottom each of the last four seasons, and they often seemed to lack direction. In a league which champions parity, they couldn’t get within realistic striking distance of a playoff position.

Off the field, their NWSL tenure began in the Boston suburbs, at Dilboy Field in Somerville. The move to Jordan Field, a cozy 4,000-plus seat stadium in the parking lot across from their old cavernous home at Harvard, didn’t yield the sort of demand and longer-term payoff the club hoped for.

Boston isn’t the only franchise which has seemed to just be biding time.

In January 2017, the Western New York Flash’s untenable state, even fresh off a league championship, was resolved with the initially successful relocation to North Carolina. Nine months later, a delinquent FC Kansas City franchise, twice league champion, was pushed to Utah under the far more viable long-term umbrella of Real Salt Lake.

And now Boston is no more – as a professional club anyway. The NWSL, having used November’s Utah press conference to champion a strong, 10-team league, will play with nine teams in 2018. Utah nearly acquired the Breakers instead of FC Kansas City, but the latter was deemed to be the more pressing situation. The NWSL carried on negotiations with a local Boston group about whom, behind the scenes, many expressed great optimism. That process dragged on for months before it died on the eve of the 2018 NWSL College Draft, leaving the league to scramble – again.

This is the offseason which NWSL owners, lack of commissioner be damned, got serious about pushing the league pushing beyond its comfort zone. This is the offseason when tectonic plates collided to create a seismic shift toward a more ambitious majority. The message is clear: Keep up or be left behind.

Its ripple effect is yet unknown. It’s easy to hit the panic button. After all, we’ve been here before. Nearly eight years ago to the day, when the LA Sol, purported to be a model franchise of Women’s Professional Soccer, folded after a buyer pulled out “at the 11th hour,” as then commissioner Tonya Antonucci put it.

“We’ve been in several weeks of negotiations with an ownership group and unfortunately it fell through at the last minute,” she told the Associated Press at the time. She continued: “I think the eight committed markets and eight committed owners, they’re only stronger as a result of losing L.A.”

ISI Photos-Tim Bouwer

ISI Photos-Tim Bouwer

That same message would be echoed a few months later, when Saint Louis Athletica folded in the middle of the season and WPS owners – including this Breakers group – decided that folding St. Louis was better than propping it up for a season, a decision a very new set of owners had to make about the Breakers now.

Whether or not one chooses to take the pessimistic view that the Breakers news is the tip of the iceberg for a tumultuous offseason, the NWSL’s contraction to nine teams less than two months before the season kicks off is a bad look which reeks of the type of year-to-year instability which so many thought were problems of the past. A lack of communication with Boston players and staff, left in the dark even while the team proceeded to draft players, doesn’t reflect well, either. This is absolutely a bad look for the league.

A more optimistic – and certainly more challenging – long view is that the league is turning a corner. It is difficult to listen to executives discuss how many expansion candidates are in play for the future as three franchises turn over in a 12-month period, but sources have been optimistic that 2019 expansion is inevitable. This string of ownership changes is the necessary precursor to additional, flashy franchises joining the party, they say.

Finding a successful model for that isn’t so far-fetched. The fledgling NWSL is reminiscent of Major League Soccer in its early days, and the parallels are, at times, striking.

Six years after its launch – after the novelty had worn off – MLS was on the brink of extinction. On Jan. 8, 2002, the league made the decision to contract, folding the Miami Fusion and league-run Tampa Bay Mutiny. MLS cut ties with its (most) underperforming franchises and shrank to 10 teams, which were shared among only three owners. The league was written off by many – as NWSL will continue to be, in light of this news – but it then made plans for future expansion and a more solvent path forward, and stands at 23 teams for the 2018 season, with five more planned for the coming years. MLS had a plan to move forward; the question now is whether the NWSL has one that will succeed.

The current trajectory of the NWSL puts on notice any teams underperforming from pure business perspectives. While actual capital isn’t considered to be lacking among remaining investors, it’s impossible to imagine an intersection of this collective pioneering approach from league owners with the likes of a Sky Blue FC remaining in middle of New Jersey, particularly with the likes of City Football Group expressing public interest in a women’s team in New York. The issue isn’t as black-and-white as “independent” teams vs. MLS-backed (and USL-backed) teams (Houston has hardly been and unqualified success), but clear lines have been drawn.

What we’re witnessing is the turning point of the NWSL. Five years from now, we might look at this turbulent offseason as the writing on the wall which led to a third failed league. More likely, though, is that it will be the impetus for a more ambitious women’s professional league which won’t look anything like the one that was so humbly announced via conference call in November 2012.

What’s clear is this: change is happening.

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