The USWNT/NWSL balance is more demanding than ever, and the injuries are piling up

Brad Smith-ISI Photos

More league games, more travel, mean more wear-and-tear for U.S. women's national team talent.

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Few realities of U.S. women’s national team life are ever revealed in the wake of National Women’s Soccer League matches, but there it was, on the field of Bridgeview, Illinois’ Toyota Park on June 17, coming from one of the national team’s most-worked players over the previous eight months.

“I’m not going to lie, I was feeling a bit of the travel today,” said Chicago Red Stars defender Casey Short, having just been confronted by a Lifetime broadcaster who saw her “pulling” at her hamstring. Only one player (Becky Sauerbrunn) has started for the U.S. more often since November, and coming off two 90-minute performances with the U.S. in Europe, Short was showing the effects of her workload.

“I know we were all a bit tired,” she said, alluding to teammates Christen Press and Julie Ertz, two players who had also made the trip. Short, however, had more reason to feel drained than most.

The United States women’s national team’s June friendlies in Sweden and Norway seemed uneventful — two down-cycle, low-leverage affairs which, traditionally, have provided few answers for national team bosses. On the field, that was the case, with the U.S producing a pair of 1-0 victories. But once the players returned to their club teams, an unexpected trend began to emerge.

Lynn Williams, a forward who came into national team camp with an ankle injury, missed her first action of the season (three games) with the North Carolina Courage. Abby Smith, a goalkeeper who saw no action in the friendlies, eventually missed time with the Boston Breakers to receive treatment related to her surgically repaired right knee. Breakers attacker Rose Lavelle and Washington forward Mallory Pugh also missed time with injuries incurred in the U.S.’ European camp, while Short showed her first signs of fatigue since returning to the NWSL before the 2016 season.

They weren’t the only returning national team players to experience fitness issues, but each had something in common. New to the senior national team setup, all five were asked to juggle NWSL duties with midseason call-ups for the first time. Their difficulties doing so ultimately highlighted the trying balance between national team demands and the NWSL world.

You're thrown into the fire, and it’s like let me see how you react. What is your character? Who are you? And it’s not even necessarily your skill. It’s, who are you? Show me.

- Allie Long

That balance is nothing new, but this season, it may be more demanding than ever. For the first time in three years, and only the second time in the league’s five-year history, the NWSL has gone to a 24-game schedule, but in doing so, the league did not extend the calendar footprint of the season. Last year, the league played 20 regular-season games in seven months. This season, the league wedged four additional matches into the same timeframe.

“I voiced it, before the season, when there was discussion of 24 games,” Seattle Reign head coach and general manager Laura Harvey said. “I’m like, ‘do you really want to put in 24 games when you know there’s going to be a tournament in the summer?’ ...

“When the vote was made to do it and we didn’t extend the season, I was like, ‘Okay, well, it’s going to be tough.’”

In terms of pure physical demands, the increase in on-field time is likely negligible, as the additional 90 minutes of game time replaces the training players miss. The bigger demand is the travel, as well as the disruption to teams’ routines. For each additional game, travelling teams endure an extra round trip of flights as well as extra recovery time.

The benefit for the clubs is two extra home games. For national team players, however, it’s one of the NWSL’s quirks which make the balance slightly more difficult. For that June break, players left their club teams on June 3 or 4, met up with the national team in Northern Europe, trained for and played in games on June 8 and 11. By June 13, players were back across the Atlantic, rejoining their teams, and preparing for games on June 17.

For some, that meant four games in 14 days, two trans-Atlantic flights, as well as a change in teams and training environments, something that has traditionally been the biggest challenge for players transitioning out of their club world.

Culture shock upon arrival

Allie Long remembers that challenge. It was only three years ago that she was in the position of Short, Williams, and the other national team players new to the competing worlds. Back then, she was just an aspiring international, trying to impress while with the Portland Thorns, but when she began getting looks with the U.S., it was clear she would have to start navigating the balance.

“When I first went in with [U.S. head coach] Jill [Ellis], she was like, ‘Wow, you belong here. You could tell within the first practice. You belong at this level,’” Long remembered. “I started a game, and then slowly, I didn’t play. She changed formations, and she was changing people, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for going from this to, oh, you actually have to earn that.”

Come January 2015, the realities of the national team became even more apparent. Though she considered herself fit, Long now admits that, before that January camp, she wasn’t at the level the national team seeks. She could keep up with the physical demands, but she couldn’t do so while maintaining her technical level. Mentally, she was drained. Unconsciously, she was having to compensate for the increased physical workload.

“I remember I took a touch I never take, and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’,” she says. “I wasn’t even thinking right. I was so mad that I let the physical aspect of the game [get to me], but it was just the load, I guess, that let me down. And that made me mentally not sharp, and fatigued, and I wasn’t making decisions.”

Long still thinks that camp cost her a chance to play at the 2015 World Cup. Over the next year, she changed her training so that, when she had a chance to break into the team for the 2016 Summer Olympics, she could handle the balance, both between her normal, league world and the physical, technical, and mental demands of the national team’s world. She ultimately made Jill Ellis’ 18-player squad for Rio 2016 and has been a regular ever since.

“After being cut, and it being so heartbreaking that I let that slip, I was like, ‘I’m going to literally do everything physically — agility, strength, fitness, everything you could think of — to set me up in a place where I could go into camp and the load doesn’t matter.’ So I’m myself in camp. So I’m myself whenever.”

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