“The NWSL broadens and deepens our player pool … it makes it way more competitive. It makes U.S. [Women’s] National Team players train and play as hard as they can every single day. We have proven we can win without a pro league, but what we are losing without it is the next generation of development.”
– Abby Wambach to Julie Foudy, April 2013
Two years is a long time in world soccer.
Wambach’s words, uttered at the outset of the National Women’s Soccer League’s debut season two years ago, aptly summarized what was supposed to make the United States’ third try at a women’s pro league different from its failed predecessors, Women’s Professional Soccer and the Women’s United Soccer Association.
After millions of dollars were burned from those leagues running in the red for years – and eventually running aground – NWSL’s creation was supposed to be the “killer app;” or, at least, the sensible evolution that would allow for sustainability in the women’s game. The established stars of the U.S. women’s national team, along with their Canadian and Mexican counterparts, would bring their skill, quality and star power to the league’s clubs. Their wages would be paid not by cash-strapped clubs, but by the federations responsible for making their national teams as sharp and competitive as possible.
The plan, hatched primarily by U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, looked like a win-win. With the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup on the horizon, top stars would have a stage and a professional regimen as they prepared. Newcomers seeking to earn their stripes would get a chance to prove on the field of play that they belonged.
“You get more players an opportunity to be seen. You get players playing daily. And you get players playing in different environments, team players who have a different role on the national team and now they have to take a leadership role in a club team and develop those abilities,” Gulati said when NWSL was announced in November 2012.
“So across the board and [as is] certainly the case on the men’s side, the best way, long-term, to develop is in a league format where the challenges are every day.”
In reality, however, that plan was kicked to the curb long ago, and Wambach herself might have shoved it into shallow grave last Wednesday when she announced that she would not be playing for her NWSL (and hometown) club, the Western New York Flash, this year in order to focus on this summer’s World Cup.
“At this stage of my career, I know what I need to prepare mentally and physically for this summer,” she stated. “My sole focus is to help bring a World Cup back to the U.S.”
Now age 34, international soccer’s all-time record goalscorer can point to compelling reasons for reserving energy to chase down the one trophy she lacks in her glittering career. She’s fought off nagging injuries in recent years and is no longer the relentless 90-minute player she once was. By her own lofty standards, Wambach flirted with irrelevance in 2014 league play, notching six goals and four assists in 10 matches, less than half of Western New York’s total schedule, as the 2013 finalists finished well short of the postseason.
Wambach told Sports Illustrated that she had no imminent plans to retire and would play somewhere, perhaps Europe, in 2016 as she looks to secure another Olympic adventure. But passing on the final two months of the Flash’s season (NWSL teams will play seven or eight matches before going on hiatus during much of the WWC, then race down the stretch for the rest of the summer) suggests she foresees a limited appetite for the daily grind once Canada 2015 is in the books.
This is her choice, of course. Her duties have forced her to spend long periods away from her wife and former Flash teammate Sarah Huffman and their home in Portland, Ore. But it robs both the Flash and NWSL of a major star to sell tickets, move merchandise and draw attention during a potentially fruitful “post-World Cup bump” period. And it thumbs a nose in the direction of Gulati’s stated desire for NWSL to keep the women’s national team out of the sort of “comfort zone” so often decried by men’s head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“How can a player make that decision to not play at club level, and still be able to play for her country?” pondered Flash coach Aaran Lines to ESPNW.com. “If you don’t play for club in the men’s game, you don’t get the opportunity to play for country, do you? We need to head in that direction of the men’s game.”
Aside from the allocated national teamers, NWSL pays bargain-basement salaries (a flurry of young talents have recently left the league to seek livable wages in the professional world) and its bare-bones structure should keep all member clubs afloat for the foreseeable future. But even with the windfall of the Women’s World Cup, 2015 is an portentious season: Neither of its predecessors made it past year three.
Looking further down the line, can the NWSL survive being treated as an afterthought by its brightest stars? We’ll have to wait and see.