This feels like an important year for the National Women’s Soccer League, which kicks off its fifth season this weekend. The league has a number of big-name, marketable stars, including young stars with breakout potential. The goal should be nothing less than making it the world’s premier women’s soccer league.
This is the third women’s professional soccer league in America. For the most part, they have been treated as little more than intramural leagues, there to give the U.S. women’s national team players something to do when U.S. Soccer didn’t need them for summer tournaments or endless money-making meaningless friendlies. The league’s financial setup still reflects this. U.S. Soccer pays the wages of national-team players, and allocates them to NWSL clubs for the season. Canada also pays the contracts of a handful of players.
This season, though, there is no summer international tournament to ruin the flow of the season. This is a huge opportunity for the NWSL. As long as U.S. Soccer can resist the temptation to schedule endless meaningless friendlies for no good reason, the NWSL should take center stage in the women’s soccer universe.
Several teams believe they have a chance to take home this year’s title. Portland, winners of last year’s regular-season title, has its core back for another run at the playoffs. Orlando added Brazilian superstar Marta and standout American defender Ali Krieger to its star-studded lineup. Carolina, which won last year’s championship as the Western New York Flash, is looking to repeat. Seattle and Kansas City both look ready to rebound after disappointing years last year, while Chicago is hoping that this is the year it can put it all together and win a trophy.
The league’s strength in depth is unmatched anywhere in the world; most other leagues have two or three dominant teams and a bunch of also-rans.
There are enough cracks in the NWSL’s facade, though, that it’s impossible not to be somewhat nervous about the future. The league cut a deal to put a game of the week on Lifetime, more TV exposure than it’s had in the past. But the rest of the league’s games will be streamed on a Verizon app. That’s terrible news for fans unless their team is on Lifetime that week, or they have a Verizon cellphone and the willingness to stare at a small screen for two hours.
Also, Commissioner Jeff Plush resigned and the league hasn’t bothered to hire a replacement yet. This kind of confusion and lack of transparency feels frighteningly familiar.
American women’s soccer has always been known for being world-class. This is the year to highlight that for the NWSL, to begin to cement the league as the world’s best destination for women’s soccer. It should be the most fast-paced, the most technically skilled, the best-attended and most-watched women’s soccer league on Earth — the Premier League and La Liga and the Bundesliga all rolled into one. This is the year to begin that climb.
• Woodbury’s Kassey Kallman will once again be carrying the Minnesota banner in the NWSL this season — this time with the Washington Spirit, after an offseason trade from Boston. Plenty of Spirit fans are worried, even though the team made the league final last year. Of the 11 starters from last season, five left Washington in the offseason and two more are out indefinitely with ACL injuries.
• The bombing of the Borussia Dortmund team bus in midweek was shocking. UEFA should be embarrassed that it delayed the match only one day and made Dortmund play barely 24 hours after someone tried to kill the entire team.
• The quick turnaround did give the Borussia Dortmund fans a chance to show off their hospitality, though. Hundreds of fans, using the #bedforawayfans hashtag on Twitter, took in Monaco fans for the night so that they could stay for the game the next day. In a week when visiting team fans caused trouble at two other European matches, it was nice to see fans coming together in Germany.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
MLS: Los Angeles at Orlando City, 2 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Orlando City has started the season well at home, winning all three of its games at its new downtown stadium. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has struggled a little so far in the post-Bruce Arena era, with two losses to start the year and an ugly 4-2 loss at Vancouver already in the books.
NWSL: Orlando at Portland, 2 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. Tobin Heath (injury) and Alex Morgan (foreign contract) won’t play in this match, which has shorn the season-opening match of some of its star power. That said, there’s no better atmosphere in women’s soccer than the Providence Park cauldron in Portland.
Premier League: Chelsea at Manchester United, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. It’s crunch time in the Premier League, with six or seven games left for most of the league. Chelsea, with a seven-point lead at the top, doesn’t want Tottenham to get any closer. Man United, in fifth place, needs a string of good results to climb back into the top four.
Liga MX: Monterrey at Toluca, noon Sunday, Univision. Toluca surprised everyone by climbing to the top of the Clausura standings, but an ugly midweek loss to lowly Cruz Azul has fans wondering anew about Toluca’s bona fides. Monterrey, lurking in third place, might be able to take over the top spot if it can win away against the Red Devils.