There’s no World Cup or Olympics this year, and so this is shaping up to be the biggest year for women’s soccer in America in a long time. Specifically, for the National Women’s Soccer League, which could and should be the best women’s league in the world.
For the first time in three years, the league won’t be losing its marquee players for an extended period in the middle of the season. The U.S. Soccer Federation, though, has yet to show that it’s truly committed to the league. Because of this, we’ve already seen how tenuous the NWSL’s grasp on the women’s soccer world can be.
U.S. Soccer has always treated the NWSL as an afterthought, continually pulling players from the league for matches for the national team. Carli Lloyd, who won her second consecutive FIFA award as the world’s best women’s player, appeared in 21 games last year for the United States, but just seven for Houston, her club team. Most of those 21 were meaningless friendlies against poor teams. U.S. Soccer still blithely scheduled them during the NWSL season, forcing the league to try to promote its fledgling teams without the benefit of having any of the league’s household names.
Pay, too, is a problem. Just this week, the NWSL announced that the league minimum salary was increasing, from a meager $7,200 to a paltry $15,000.
U.S. Soccer, meanwhile, is locked in a battle over the collective bargaining agreement for national team members. The players’ demands, which boil down to them being paid on the same scale as the U.S. men’s national team, seem pretty fair, and doubly so given the women’s history of success, and the off-the-charts TV viewing figures for the women’s team.
The pay problems have already caused enough uncertainty that several high-profile players have jumped to European leagues. Alex Morgan will play the first half of the year for Paris Saint-Germain. Crystal Dunn, a former league MVP, is headed for Chelsea.
From the beginning, American women’s soccer has been world class, and there’s no reason that this advantage can’t translate to the national league. U.S. fan interest is there in a way that it isn’t anywhere else in the entire Western Hemisphere. Even the big names of European soccer struggle to compete with American might in the women’s game.
The NWSL should be bigger than just 10 teams, and it should have the wherewithal to pluck the best players from all over the world, just like European teams do in men’s soccer. That said, the U.S. has wasted its early advantages, and now it will take a renewed commitment from U.S. Soccer to make the NWSL the world’s best league. From the organization’s history with the scheduling of the national team, and its financial attitude toward investing in the current crop of players, it’s not looking like U.S. Soccer is that interested.
• CONCACAF announced a reworking of its Champions League schedule, turning the entire competition into a big knockout tournament. Major League Soccer’s main complaint — that the tournament starts in February, before the MLS season starts — hasn’t been addressed, though. The MLS could have pushed to play the knockout rounds in the fall. Instead it chose to keep the league’s fall playoff-chase schedule uncluttered, and now will continue to suffer by playing in February when the league is still in preseason.
• This year’s CONCACAF Champions League knockout rounds start on Feb. 22. MLS has three clubs in the quarterfinals, but two of them — New York and Vancouver — play each other, meaning neither has an advantage. Dallas, though, has to play Panamanian champions Arabe Unido, which started its spring season a couple of weeks ago.
• There’s only one undefeated team left in Europe’s biggest leagues. It’s not only not a big-name team, it’s in third place, 11 points out of first. TSG Hoffenheim has seven victories and an astonishing 10 draws. It’s just the sixth German team that has gone without a loss halfway through its season.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
FA Cup: Arsenal at Southampton, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Only two of the FA Cup’s fourth-round matches involve a pair of Premier League teams, and this is the only one involving two decent teams. Earlier this year, Southampton knocked Arsenal from the League Cup in the quarterfinals. Can it achieve the double and beat the Gunners in both cup competitions?
FA Cup: Wigan at Manchester United, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS1. It won’t be a long drive for the away fans; Wigan is effectively a northwest suburb of Manchester, making this one of the nearest rivalries in the fourth round. It’s been an ugly season for the visitors, who are flirting with relegation in the second division. But they have won three consecutive matches entering this one.
La Liga: Real Sociedad at Real Madrid, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Second-place upstart Sevilla has dominated the headlines in Spain this year, but in some ways Real Sociedad has been the hipster’s choice of the Spanish challengers this year, having risen to a tie for fourth. The visitors would dearly love to continue Real Madrid’s mini-slide. Even a tie would feel much like a victory.
International friendly: United States vs. Serbia, 3 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2. Both the USA and Serbia’s domestic leagues are in the middle of their winter breaks, thus giving domestic players for both national teams an opportunity to train together and shake off a bit of rust. Bruce Arena will be looking for positive signs from his struggling side as he makes his return as USA coach.