The NWSL is going to be just fine, even if it loses a few high-profile stars
You can’t help but ask, when you see the reaction. Alex Morgan moves to France, Crystal Dunn signs in England, and, from a certain perspective, it’s natural to wonder about the health of the National Women’s Soccer League. Those are two of the league’s premier talents.
But it’s hard to see that perspective coming from inside an NWSL venue. There’s no point, when I walk around a place like Memorial Stadium in Seattle, that I ever think, “this would all go away if Hope Solo wasn’t around.” We even dove into a similar assumption at the start of last season, as Morgan left Portland. Thorns FC went on to set another attendance record. The loss of the biggest star of the game’s modern era had no discernable impact on the Thorns’ appeal.
This is the on-the-ground reality of the NWSL. Market to market, there is no one make-or-break star, even though players like Morgan and Dunn certainly help. But over the last four years (longer, in some cases), NWSL franchises have built relationships with communities that go beyond any single player. It’s why Houston can still draw when Carli Lloyd is not around. It’s why Seattle’s attendance rose despite prolonged absences from Solo and Megan Rapinoe.
In Washington, the Spirit is facing major problems, but not because of the loss of Dunn alone. Five of the team’s highest-profile players have left this offseason, others may still follow, and the team’s ownership group faces a credibility problem that transcends anything head coach/general manager Jim Gabarra can address on the field. It’s a multi-pronged issue. Beyond losing one player, Washington is a far more realistic view of how things can go wrong in the NWSL.
Those pictures are all part of a bigger, more complex reality, one that tends to be overlooked when huge news drills down on one issue. That reality shows a number of places where the NWSL is strong and a number of places where the league is weak. No single news item can tell us about a league any more than looking at a few fingers can tell us about an entire person.
That’s not to say things aren’t connected, though. In losing Morgan and Dunn – in seemingly not being able to compete beyond hoping a home-field advantage matters – the NWSL is confronted with a few realities. First, at this point in the U.S. women’s national team cycle – with two years separating the team from its next major competition – players are going to be more willing to go abroad, possibly because national team management is less concerned with keeping them close.
Second, welcome to modern soccer, where there’s more than two teams capable of drawing a U.S. star away from American shores. Before, it was mostly Lyon (Megan Rapinoe, before) and Paris Saint-Germain (Tobin Heath). Maybe we could include Sweden’s Tyreso (RIP) in here, too. Now we’ve got Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City in England. There are a handful of German teams that can offer more than what players make in the NWSL. Sweden still has some viable destinations, and the French league is slowly becoming more than a two-team league. In the future, don’t be surprised if a China sports culture that’s drawing more and more WNBA talent becomes a bigger factor in the NWSL world.
The third reality is one the league can control. Over the NWSL’s first four years, the attitude around the league’s growth could be likened to the tortoise and hare, slow and steady wins the race axiom. In the wake of WUSA and WPS, that was likely the right course, but those leagues also existed in a less mature landscape.
Now, slow and steady has left the NWSL shorthanded when competing in the international market. International stars like Kim Little and Amandine Henry are joining the NWSL for very specific reasons, based on the high quality of a league in one of the most attractive countries in the world. But the NWSL is still at a disadvantage. Consider the loss of West Virginia-groomed Canadian internationals Ashley Lawrence (to PSG) and Kadeisha Buchanan (assumed to Lyon) as evidence of that challenge.
All of these things are major concerns, but they’re obstacles wrapped in some broader, much better news. Both nationally and globally, the women’s game has never been stronger, especially at the club level. It’s allowing players to get more of the money they’re earning. It’s seeing a young league perfectly capable of survival despite losing this generation’s Mia Hamm. It’s giving fans more viewing options than were previously imaginable, and it’s giving the game’s youngest stars viable choices where, before, there were only obligations. All of this is part of an ecosystem that creates the loyalty you feel inside NWSL stadiums. It doesn’t detract from it.
To bring back one of those obligations and ask U.S. players to stay closer to home undermines that ethos. In terms of the league’s core customers, fans are smart enough to know the loss of Morgan, Dunn and potentially others does little to change what the NWSL offers. To treat fans as such is almost disrespectful. Of course, the Orlando fan who came out last year would prefer to watch Alex Morgan, but most of the people who made the Pride successful are not going to turn their back on their fandom. The one game Pride fans knew Morgan would miss last season, August 26’s post-Olympics visit from Washington, Orlando still drew 7,052 fans, leaving that Friday night to fall in line with the 7,161 the team averaged after its record-breaking opener (23,403 on April 25).
It is harder to draw new fans without the likes of Morgan around, but if any team needs a specific player to survive, the NWSL should move on from it as soon as possible. The one team that has lost Morgan saw attendance increase by eight percent the next season (Portland, to 16,945, in 2016). If a franchise absolutely needs Morgan to survive, that says less about the league than it does the fragility of that market.
This is the new women’s soccer world, one where fans have as much awareness of Europeans stars like Ada Hegerberg as they do college stars, like Andi Sullivan. To imply the NWSL would be better apart from that reality is to ignore why so many people are falling in love with women’s soccer. It is, in some cases, to imply you just haven’t been paying enough attention to the NWSL.
To the extent that there are Chicken Littles wondering if the sky is falling, unfortunately, that’s just women’s sports. Twenty years in, you still have people that point at WNBA television ratings and wonder if the league is viable. And despite fan loyalty that gives the NWSL a refreshingly strong foundation, people have little proof a women’s pro league can work in this country.
From that point of view, some skepticism is justified, but we have to get beyond always talking in the same disparaging ways about women’s soccer. We should be talking about impact in the league, as we would with any other sport, instead of assuming player moves compromise the ground beneath it.
Richard Farley is the Deputy Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.