National Women’s Soccer League: Early returns mixed


Washington Spirit players practice at Maryland SoccerPlex. The Spirit has one of the best facilities in the NWSL, the third attempt at women’s pro soccer. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

In these early days of the National Women’s Soccer League, the third go at a female pro circuit, status is measured in small triumphs and little setbacks.

Portland delivered a knockout crowd, but Chicago struggled. National TV has been arranged, but live online viewing has been choppy. The standard of play is fine, but goals have come at a premium. Maryland SoccerPlex is a jewel, but most venues are stuck with artificial turf or football marks.

“In some cases, it’s been better than expected. In other cases, we have more work to do,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said this week. “It’s what you would expect.”

Eleven games into its existence, the NWSL has a better idea of where it stands and what challenges lie ahead. Subsidized by the USSF and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian and Mexican federations, the low-budget, eight-team league is providing a platform for development and a showcase for U.S. national team players.

Average attendance is 4,595, ranging from 1,255 at the Chicago Red Stars’ debut in Lisle, Ill., to 16,479 for the Portland Thorns’ home opener at MLS’s Jeld-Wen Field. The previous league, Women’s Professional Soccer, averaged 3,930 from 2009 to 2011 and had much higher overhead.

On Saturday, Seattle will become the last team to play a home game.

The Washington Spirit drew 4,569 and 3,102 respectively for its first two games at Maryland SoccerPlex, a northern Montgomery County facility that seats 3,200 and typically holds 4,500 with the benefit of a deep concourse and grass hill behind one goal.

However, ahead of Saturday night’s visit by superstar Alex Morgan and undefeated Portland, Spirit officials said they have sold around 5,000 tickets.

“We could not have asked for a better first three games,” said Spirit owner Bill Lynch, a Northern Virginia software executive who has targeted an average of 3,000 for financial sustainability.

Appearances by Morgan and Abby Wambach (two weeks ago) bolstered the team’s early marketing efforts.

While subsidies have eased financial burden, Lynch and the other NWSL owners recognize the need to gain exposure and grow the business.

Fox Soccer recently agreed to show one regular season match per week starting in July, as well as both semifinals and the championship game in August. Fox is not paying a rights fee, but the league isn’t buying airtime either, Gulati said, suggesting a hybrid formula.

Every team except Chicago has a uniform sponsor, most notably Ocean Spray with the Boston Breakers. The Spirit, however, has not sold its rights and is displaying the logo of Lynch’s company, ProChain Solutions, on the jerseys.

“Establishing ourselves and showing solid attendance will create business opportunities and translate into sponsors,” Lynch said. The team has already sold 2,500 tickets for next weekend’s home game against Boston and 2,000 for the subsequent home appearance in mid-June vs. the Western New York Flash.

The Spirit has it good at the SoccerPlex. Despite sitting some 30 miles from the city, the facility is among the league’s finest for both players and supporters. Only one other team plays on natural grass and the close-in seating allows young fans — the core of women’s soccer support — to interact with players before and after the game.

The league’s artificial turf fields are “not a perfect situation,” Gulati said, “but that’s the reality of where we are as a league right now.”

The NWSL’s primary purpose is to provide a competitive environment for players from the top-ranked national team and to develop future prospects. Although cost constraints have prevented the NWSL from signing elite foreigners, like its failed predecessors did, U.S. Coach Tom Sermanni is encouraged by the play.

“Because of what happened in previous leagues, perhaps the expectations for the NWSL weren’t as high,” the Scotland native said. “But the games have been of high standard, and all the teams have tried to play good football.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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