The NWSL – Nine Years Strong

Impetus is delighted to welcome Catherine Paquette, of Her Beautiful Game as our newest writer. Catherine will be producing weekly round ups of the NWSL as well as playing a leading role in our coverage of next season’s FAWSL, international football and many other aspects of women’s football. Here, Catherine gives us all the background to the NWSL.

Nine years.  It is a big number for professional women’s soccer in the United States.  It is big because it represents the National Women’s Soccer League’s current duration.  This number is three times as long as the two other previous professional leagues have lasted.  

This did not happen by chance.  The NWSL was designed to be cost effective, very conservative and originally was supported by the national footballing associations of Mexico, Canada and the United States of America.  These national associations supported it through direct funding and the subsidization of national player salaries allocated to the league. 

A lot has changed since the 2013 debut season though.  Mexico pulled out of the agreement and established its own league in 2017.  Of the eight original franchises, five remain. Three teams folded, one was sold to another market and six new franchises were created.

The league currently has ten franchises playing: the Chicago Red Stars, the Houston Dash, Kansas City, NJ/NY Gotham FC, the North Carolina Courage, the OL Reign, the Portland Thorns, Racing Louisville FC and the Washington Spirit.  Two other new franchises, Angel City FC in Los Angeles and San Diego’s NWSL team are set to join the league in 2022.

The NWSL has not just grown in franchises but also in visibility. In its inaugural year teams averaged 4,270 spectators a match.  In 2019, when stadiums were last allowed at full capacity, this number had nearly doubled.  The Portland Thorns had an average attendance of 20,098 people, with a season high of 25,218 their stadium’s capacity.

While the first year of the NWSL had nearly every game broadcast for free on YouTube with sometimes very low resolution, one can now watch nearly every game on CBS or Paramount+ in the US and on Twitch internationally with relatively good resolution.

Much still needs to happen though.  The salary cap has more than tripled, from $200,000 to the 2021 cap of $685,500 per team, as has the minimum salary from $6,000 to $22,000 a year.  While salaries have increased, the NWSL like many other women’s leagues around the world thrives on the backs of its lowest salaried players.  

The same can be said of the NWSL’s current infrastructure.  Playing and practicing conditions have greatly changed for the better. However, again, like many women’s leagues around the world the NWSL suffers from an infrastructure gap with the men, unable to always find adequate and affordable soccer specific stadiums.  

At present two teams, the OL Reign and KC, play their games on temporarily converted baseball fields.  One team, the Washington Spirit, has an agreement to split its home matches between three different stadiums located in two different states as well as Audi Field in DC.

Above: Portland Thorns players in front of another packed house. Photo: Soccer Stadium Digest

The NWSL has come a long way, but is still striving to improve.  This improvement is supported by players, the league and also by fans, many of whom were drawn to the league due to the success of the United States Women’s National Team and the 2015 Women’s World Cup held in Canada.

It is this fan support, and the NWSL’s desire to ensure that it grows into the best women’s league in the world, that lead it last year to perhaps it’s greatest coup so far.  

While most women’s football leagues around the world were severely hit by COVID, with many originally not returning to play, the NWSL was able to organize a new competition and become the first league in North America to return to play.

The NWSL Challenge Cup, held in June and July of last year, led to record viewing numbers and a fantastic display of the quality of play within America’s only pro women’s soccer league.  The NWSL followed this up with a fall series where its then nine teams were separated into three groups and played a four match series each.

Due to the original uncertainty with regards to stadium attendance and the continued COVID-19 pandemic, the NWSL decided to start its 2021 season with its second iteration of the Challenge Cup.  The Portland Thorns, one of the league’s consistent high performers since the inception of the league, won the cup in a final played against NJ/NY Gotham FC.

Which leads us to the current 2021 NWSL season. Like previous season, each team will play a 24-match regular season, with at least one home-and-away against each team. The season started on May 15th and is set to conclude October 30th.

Eight teams will make the play-offs, with the top two seeded teams skipping the quarter-finals and progressing directly to the playoff semi-finals.  The NWSL Championship is set for November 20th and the competition will not take an Olympic break.

A number of big signings entered the league, many from the English FAWSL. Several Americans internationals who had gone to play overseas during the 2020-21 season, chose to return and sign for NWSL clubs.  There are also a number of short term loans, ranging from leagues such as the French Division 1 to the Mexican Liga MX Femenil.

Above: Portland Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna “AD” Franch clears in the game between the Thorns and North Carolina Courage last night. Photo: Andy Mead/ISI PhotosAndy Mead/ISI Photos

The beginning of the season has seen some expected results and a few surprise ones.  This past Saturday was the league’s first Super Saturday, where all ten teams met in five matchups.  So far teams have played between six and eight matches.  

Like in most seasons, the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage have had relatively strong starts to the season. They met each other on Super Saturday with the Courage winning 2-0.  The win propelled the Courage to second in the league with the Thorns falling to third.

New expansion teams Kansas City and Racing Louisville have experienced some growing pains.  KC received the bulk of its players from the now defunct Utah Royals while Louisville built from its team scratch. 

Both clubs are less than seven months old and are still trying to find their feet.  Racing has fared much better than KC, who has yet to record a single win.  

A 3-0 win this weekend by Louisville over the Chicago Red Stars showed that they have the playing ability to develop attacks and score goals.  While questions still remain about their defence, the win placed them sixth in the league. 

KC on the other hand suffered yet another defeat.  While they scored early, through a wonderful goal by Amy Rodriguez, and looked like they may register their first franchise win despite a more dominant Washington performance, the team once again broke down in the final third of the match.  They let in one goal in the 78th minute and a second deep into injury time.  They remain last in the league.

The Washington Spirit and Gotham FC have continued their increase in form, after several difficult seasons.  Both teams are composed of relatively young squads supported by a number of seasoned veterans. 

Gotham’s pre-season went exceptionally well with an appearance in the Challenge Cup final.  Through good strategic counter attacking play they were able to beat the OL Reign on the road 3-0 on Super Saturday.  

The Washington Spirit have also had a good early season.  Bolstered by new recruits and the maturation of young talent drafted over the years they have shown a more disciplined and attacking minded team than in previous years. They also recorded a win on Super Saturday, described above.  The Spirit and Gotham currently sit fourth and fifth in the league respectively.

The Houston Dash, which has never qualified for the NWSL Playoffs, have had an inconsistent start.  This is surprising considering the 2020 form the team had which lead to their win of the Challenge Cup.  They have since had little change in the team’s squad.   

This inconsistency saw them loose to NWSL newbies Louisville last week, yet beat the Orlando Pride 2-1 on Super Saturday.  The win took them from ninth to seventh in the league.

The Chicago Red Stars have also had an inconsistent start despite also having little change in their squad.  While they are missing a few top players due to injury, and have never been able to replace Sam Kerr scoring-wise, the team started this season with lacklustre performances.  

Above: Danielle Colaprico of Chicago Red Stars (24) battles with Ashley Sanchez of the Washington Spirit last season. Photo: Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

This lacklustre run kept up on Super Saturday when they were beaten by Louisville at home 3-0.  After the loss the Red Stars have fallen to eight place.

The OL Reign, who were bought at the end of 2019 by French perennial winners Olympique Lyonnais, are one of the surprising teams so far.  Despite having an impressive squad bolstered by French Lyonnais loans, Manchester City’s Karen Bardsley and a number of world class international players, the team has suffered four defeats.  

The Reign have shown strong performances but they are not living up to its quality. While they often seem to pass the ball with creativity and ease, they are not able to finish, registering no goals in the majority of their regular season games.  

Moreover, mistakes made by several players in vulnerable positions have led to easy goals against as have a number of counter attacking plays.  This arguably happened in their 3-0 loss to Gotham on Super Saturday.  The Reign currently sit in ninth placed.

Perhaps the biggest shock though in 2021 is the Orlando Pride.  The Pride have long been a team packed with talent, including two of the top women’s scorers ever: Alex Morgan and Marta.  Despite this talent the Pride have been perennial under performers, both from individual players and from the capability expected of such a team.

This has changed in 2021.  The Pride were the only undefeated team in the league prior to Super Saturday, and had won four matches and drawn three.  Individually its players, including Morgan and Marta, are finally finding club form.  

The early lead this success gave them helped with their standing.  Despite a 2-1 loss on Super Saturday to the Houston Dash, the Pride currently still lead the NWSL.

The league, which does not have a consistent schedule and often has matches on weekend and mid-week days, next plays Friday, July 2nd.  Matches will also be held on July 3 & 4.  Internationally games are free to watch on Twitch.  The full schedule and match links can be found at nwslsoccer.com.

Catherine’s weekly articles on the NWSL will appear every Tuesday on Impetus starting on 6th July. For more information on Catherine and all of our contributors, visit About our Contributors (wordpress.com)

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