Is the NWSL the best league in the world? It's complicated

The idea that USWNT stars crossing the pond are in for a major drop in the quality of play is an outdated thought.

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Social media was awash with views, opinions and observations this week following the high profile move of Carli Lloyd from the Houston Dash to England’s FA Women’s Super League Champions, Manchester City.

The move, which was the latest in a line of transfers that has seen current and former U.S women’s national team players move to Europe, has once again left people debating which league stands out above the rest.

Alex Morgan was the first to cross the pond, ending a well-publicized pursuit by Olympique Lyonnais president Jean-Michel Aulas, as she moved to France to link up with the UEFA Women’s Champions League holders. With the French champions consistently handing out thrashings to opponents within the France’s first division, many questioned Morgan for leaving the NWSL, which is widely accepted as a much more competitive league.

Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler tweeted this week that all the top scorers from the NWSL in 2016 would be returning in 2017, describing it as “the toughest and best league in the world,” while Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson tweeted “let’s remember (the) gap between NWSL and UK in terms of play quality is big,” in response to Carli Lloyd’s move to Manchester. Heather O’Reilly has also moved to Arsenal Ladies, while one of the U.S’ brightest prospects, Crystal Dunn, has landed at Chelsea Ladies.

The U.S moves have without question divided opinion, with some fans even questioning the viability of the NWSL without the stars (Morgan and Lloyd plan to return in June). And the same question always arises when players move abroad from the U.S: “Why would they want to leave the best league in the world?”

Firstly, referencing any league as the best in the world is a matter of opinion. We often hear the English Premier League touted as being the best league in the world, but is it really? Most followed? Almost without question. But with just four Champions League winners since the league formed in 1992-1993, is it really the best?

With regards to the NWSL, access through streams makes it easily one of the most accessible leagues, giving women’s soccer fans across the globe the opportunity to watch matches every week. Therefore, we gain a good understanding of the style of play in the league. Who’s performing well and who perhaps isn’t having the best of seasons? They say the league table doesn’t lie, and it doesn’t, but unless you watch a league at least semi-regularly, how can you judge its quality?

For fans of other leagues, it isn’t so easy to judge, especially if you’re based in the United States.  Those wanting to follow their favorite U.S players in Europe are going to find it a struggle. Neither the FA WSL nor Division 1 Féminine offer official online streams. The Frauen-Bundesliga in Germany streams one game a week online, while the Swedish Damallsvenskan, also considered one of the premier competitions, has a for-pay online service.

Leagues that maybe don’t grab the headlines, such as the Norwegian Toppserien and Danish 3F Liga, both streamed matches last year for free, but how many people watched them?

How the NWSL stacks up against Europe's best

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

The answer we all want to know: Where does the NWSL rank amongst these leagues?

It’s hard to say, but one thing is for certain, Whisler was right in his statement that the league is the most competitive, where on any given day, the bottom teams can beat the top. This can also occur in England, occasionally happens in Sweden and Germany, but never happens in France.

The biggest reason for the disparity within European leagues is the varying status of clubs. In France, only Lyon, PSG and Montpellier are what would be considered as full-time, with Juvisy, a team often seen in the Champions League in years past, is only semi-professional. The same can be said for clubs in some of Europe’s other top leagues, with the likes of Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg benefiting from professional, full-time environments. But like some players in the United States, many still study or work outside of their soccer commitments.

The style of play is something else to consider. It is widely accepted that soccer in Europe is more technical, with a focus more on tactics and patient buildup; the U.S. is focused more on speed and athleticism. But you cannot pigeonhole players, just because of where they come from. A player like Manon Melis, from the Netherlands, was an asset for the Seattle Reign last season because of the speed she brought over from her previous club Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC, while the technically gifted Megan Rapinoe won a domestic double with Lyon during her stint in France.

The most notable difference is the speed of transition. In the U.S, teams can turn defense into attack in a matter of seconds. Whereas in Europe, there is more patience in the build-up of play. Players support this statement, but they also agree it’s difficult to compare.

The German league is seen as one of the more physical leagues, while the FA WSL perhaps more possession-oriented. Paulson’s comments that the quality in play between the NWSL and the league in England is “big” may have been true in the past, but not now.

The only opportunity we’ve had to see an NWSL club face off against a team from Europe was when Arsenal Ladies visited Seattle last May for an exhibition match. The game finished 1-1 and both teams had star players missing, so it’s hard to read too much into that one match.

Place an NWSL club in the Frauen-Bundesliga, widely considered Europe’s strongest league, and there’s no question the teams at the bottom would come up short against a U.S. club.

But come up against a Wolfsburg, Turbine Potsdam or Bayern Munich, and you might see a very different match. A struggling Boston Breakers side from last season would have been overrun and overpowered by some of Germany’s top clubs, and that’s not picking on the Breakers. Germany’s top clubs would match any of the NWSL clubs, and probably beat most of them, too.

Place NWSL teams in the French League, and Lyon would out-pass all 10 of them, and on their day, likely win comfortably against most of them.

While the FA WSL is becoming top-heavy with Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal investing big in their squads, the likes of Birmingham and Liverpool are unlikely to be overawed by NWSL clubs. Portland and North Carolina – Shield and championship winners, respectively – are not going to be troubled by a part-time outfit like Sunderland Ladies; the Houston Dash against Liverpool would make for an interesting match, however. Both contain internationals and young talent, but are a level below the leading sides in their division.

Players moving away from the NWSL is not the step down that people may assume. While the top leagues in Europe can rightly be accused of being top-heavy, the challenges are very different for American players with the varying styles they will come up against. A team like Manchester City, strong in defense and well organized, will present a different challenge to a Chelsea Ladies, who possess some of the best attacking talent in Europe. And all the aforementioned top clubs meet in Champions League, which was part of the draw for Lloyd and Morgan.

A Club World Cup cannot come soon enough, and it would be the platform for leading clubs from around the world to compete. People will have to make their own judgements, but it isn’t a given that NWSL clubs would thrive in Europe.

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