On the surface, the departures are a boon to the FA Women’s Super League and a blow to the NWSL, which is facing increasing competition for players as European clubs wake to the fact men aren’t the only ones capable of mastering the beautiful game.
There is, however, a lot to unpack here.
They’re leaving, in large part, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s impact on U.S. sports. The national team might end up going a year between matches, and the NWSL had to drastically alter its 2020 plans.
The players urgently need somewhere to play this fall and winter. The pandemic forced the league to cancel the regular season, leaving a month-long tournament this summer in a Utah bubble and a seven-week fall series in home markets.
That’s it: between nine and 11 matches for most teams, then a long offseason.
Effective mid-October, NWSL teams will not play competitively again until probably April — an eternity for a sport in which players lose fitness and form after a few weeks of inactivity.
Combined with no U.S. matches until perhaps March, the national team stars were staring at extended downtime as the rescheduled Olympics approached.
The WSL — and leagues in countries that have handled the pandemic better than the United States — offered an option.
The English regular season began last weekend and will run into May. Each of the 12 clubs will play 22 matches plus two cup competitions. For Chelsea and Manchester City, there is the UEFA Women’s Champions League, featuring Olympique Lyonnais, Wolfsburg and Barcelona.
From top to bottom, the nine-team NWSL is better than the 12-club WSL, but Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are top class, and others, such as Manchester United, are showing ambition after launching women’s programs in recent years.
Many NWSL players have left in recent weeks but on short-term contracts and loans. This is not unusual; it’s just earlier in the year than usual. Most, if not all, will return in 2021.
Also, this is not the first time U.S. stars have headed abroad: Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Crystal Dunn, among others, have expanded their horizons. They, however, didn’t stay long.
Mewis, formerly with the North Carolina Courage, will remain at Manchester City for the “foreseeable future.” Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Heath (Portland Thorns) and Press (Utah Royals) signed one-year contracts.
They could all end up returning stateside early in the 2021 NWSL season, coinciding with national team preparations for the Olympics.
Or they could fall in love with a richer soccer culture and embrace the traditional framework of Europe’s domestic and continental competitions. Money plays a big part as well: Salaries seem to be growing at the bigger European clubs. U.S. stars will continue to get paid for national team duty, either on salary or per diem.
The NWSL clubs do not receive transfer payments, as is common in men’s soccer, because U.S. stars are under contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation, not individual teams. They do, however, retain the players’ domestic rights, except the Spirit, which, anticipating Lavelle would not return anytime soon, traded her rights to OL Reign (Tacoma, Wash.).
If not for Lavelle’s desire to play in England, there’s no way the Spirit would have entertained trade offers.
The loss of a star is particularly hard on the Spirit, which will be without arguably the best midfielder in the world when she’s healthy. (She is hurt a lot.) At 25, Lavelle is younger than Mewis (28 next month), Heath (32) and Press (32 in December).
The departure comes as the Spirit is attempting to broaden its local appeal by playing seven matches next year at 20,000-capacity Audi Field (and the other five home games at 5,000-seat Segra Field in Leesburg). For most of its seven-year existence, it has played at 5,200-capacity Maryland SoccerPlex in northern Montgomery County.
Washington still has much to offer, including national team midfielder Andi Sullivan. But as a whole, the league is in danger of losing some star power. And it’s U.S. star power, a driving force behind the NWSL’s growth. CBS this year started putting games on national TV; it undoubtedly wants marquee players to stick around.
Most U.S. national team players are staying put, however. And as Portland owner Merritt Paulson tweeted, “The fact other countries are finally focusing a little on [women’s soccer] isn’t a bad thing for NWSL and it’s great for the broader sport.”
He is on to something. As global brands such as Manchester United and Real Madrid devote greater resources to women’s soccer, the world gets to see a wider variety of talent while players gain exposure to different opponents, facilities and coaches.
The NWSL will be just fine. But it will have to adapt to the growth of the women’s game and the likelihood that some marquee players might find happiness abroad.