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NWSL Preview

After a tumultuous offseason, NWSL is set to kickoff in 2018

After a shaky and turbulent offseason, the NWSL season is set to begin and ASN's John Halloran is here to breakdown what to expect both on the field and off with his season preview
BY John Halloran Posted
March 19, 2018
6:00 PM
BY ANY MEASURE, the National Women’s Soccer League has experienced a wild off-season.

FC Kansas City, one of the league’s founding members and champions in 2014 and 2015, ceased operations. In its place, a new club, the Utah Royals was born. The Boston Breakers, another one of the league’s founding members and one of the oldest women’s professional soccer teams in America, folded only 56 days before kickoff of the 2018 season.

On the player front, American stars Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara, Sydney Leroux, Christen Press, Carli Lloyd, Allie Long, Morgan Brian, Taylor Smith, and Rose Lavelle all changed teams. On the coaching front, four of the league’s nine franchises will begin this season with a new manager on the sidelines.

To get a sense of where the NWSL is at headed into the 2018 season, American Soccer Now spoke with three league veterans, McCall Zerboni, Amber Brooks, and Sam Johnson. Combined, the three players have 21 seasons of professional soccer experience—13 of which have come in the NWSL. In their careers, the trio have also played in the Frauen Bundesliga, the W-League, and the WPS.

The simple existence of the league into a sixth season—double the length of the previous incarnations of women’s professional soccer with the WUSA and WPS—is itself no small victory.

Johnson, a center back for the Chicago Red Stars, attributes that success to the NWSL learning a lesson from other leagues’ failures, namely managing its costs and avoiding the financial pitfalls that doomed the WUSA and WPS.

“It’s been six years now, so I think they did it right by starting off slow,” she explained. “The only thing I know about the last league is that they tried to do what the players wanted and put out proper salaries and [the NWSL] started out the opposite which seems like it hurts us at first, but in order to sustain something, that’s the route we have to go.”

In its inaugural season, the league started off with a minimum salary of $6,000 and a salary cap of $200,000 per team. Those numbers ticked up slowly until last season, when a partnership with A&E networks helped allow salaries to double. For 2018, the minimum salary is $15,750 with a team salary cap of $350,000.

To supplement their income and make a living wage, many players turn to coaching and get help from their families.

“A lot of players are in my situation,” said Brooks, a defensive midfielder with the Houston Dash. “We do small group and individual training, maybe a little coaching on the side. A lot of us are fortunate to have support from our family in one way or another, whether it’s them letting us stay with them rent-free in the off season, or they buy groceries for us here and there.”

Brooks also appreciates the fact that the league is helping players with coaching education, which she says can be both expensive and time-consuming. However, she concedes it’s difficult to coach and keep 100% of her focus on being a full-time professional player.

“Playing in Houston I have the opportunity to run a few [coaching] sessions, but I know I’m not going to be on my legs all day in the heat because that will hurt my performance.”

Johnson, for her part, has given up on trying to work a second job during the season.

“You can’t really sustain an actual second salary because the way our hours work for practice. It’s dead set in the middle of the day, you’re traveling, you really are a fulltime player, but you’re not paid as a fulltime employee,” she argued.

“You want to supplement your income, but then you can’t really spend your energy trying to do that because you won’t have your energy for soccer. I tried that with trial and error and I just needed bite the bullet and allocate my energy and time to soccer.”

“It’s just not realistic if I’m going to put my 100% effort into soccer,” she added.

These conditions are no different from those around the world in the women’s game. Brooks said she commonly saw her teammates at Bayern Munich working four to five hours a day in side jobs. Often, this added stress causes players to leave the game long before their useful playing days are over.

In December, FIFPro, an organization representing 60,000 players worldwide, released an extensive study of the women’s game which said 90% of women’s players have considered early retirement. In the U.S., that problem is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of NWSL players have degrees from top universities and could make much more money in other industries.

“Everyone’s making a sacrifice because they love the game and they want to help this league grow,” explained Zerboni, a midfielder for the North Carolina Courage. “Any one of us could leave and get an amazing job that makes a lot more money, but that’s not why we’re in this.”

Brooks, who has said she’s interested in becoming a general manager one day, knows it’s difficult for teammates to pass up good job opportunities outside the game when they come along. She also said that continuing a career in soccer can hinder players when they do finally enter the job market years after their peers and without relevant job experience.

“I think it’s just tough when you’re playing to find that work balance to the point where you’re still soly focused on your career as a soccer player, but also in the back of your mind you realize, ‘Hey, are there things I can be doing that might set me up for the future?” she said.

To help with the wage crunch, some clubs provide housing for their players, or help arrange host families.

“The league and each club are doing a good job providing us avenues and resources for players to survive and even small things like providing housing,” noted Zerboni. “Providing housing takes a big financial need off the players.”

Johnson acknowledges that the NWSL is growing in that regard, but also feels like the league is behind what she has seen playing in Australia’s W-League.

“My two years in Australia, I felt their league was more established than ours,” she said. “Internationals are a priority over there, so they treated us really well, they accommodated us really well. You get cars, you get housing, we’re treated like royalty.”

In Chicago, Johnson has relied on host families, something she said is less than ideal.

“Even though I love my host family, I just didn’t feel like I was an adult, like someone who was trying to build a career and be a professional athlete,” she explained.

Six years in, standards across clubs in the league vary widely.

The teams in Portland, Houston, Orlando, and Utah are affiliated with Major League Soccer sides—something that comes with the benefit of more resources, but sometimes leaves the women’s side feeling underappreciated. North Carolina is also affiliated with a men’s side, North Carolina FC, which plays in the USL, a second-division league. The remaining four NWSL squads, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, and Sky Blue, are independently owned.

This past off-season, Utah has gained a lot of attention with the facilities, resources, and amenities the first-year club is providing to its players. It also signed a $2 million jersey sponsorship deal. Additionally, owner Dell Loy Hansen, has made several impassioned calls for equality.

Zerboni has seen a similar commitment to the women’s game in North Carolina, which took over the Western New York Flash after the 2016 season. She says the Courage made sure the players felt comfortable and had everything they needed.

“Last year was amazing,” said Zerboni. “We weren’t sure what to expect coming in, especially since [the move from New York] was put together so quickly. The way that this whole club, everybody in the front office, the staff, the coaches, whatever their role was, the way they all came together and banded together to make this work and provide the best possible environment for the players was truly, truly amazing.”

Brooks also praised the league for improving standards in recent years and specifically praised Portland, Orlando, Utah, and Seattle.

“You’re seeing more and more organizations and clubs that are desirable places to play that are really taking care of their players on and off the field and trying to make up for the lack of salary,” she said.

However, Brooks confessed that in Houston, she doesn’t feel the Dash are treated on an equal plane as its MLS-affiliated side, the Dynamo.

“I’ve obviously had the experience at Portland and Merritt’s obviously one of the more involved owners and I think has stepped up in a lot of ways on the women’s side. So, in general, I felt more as an equal when I played for the Thorns in relation to the Timbers,” she said.

Brooks also explained that with the introduction of a new head coach this season, Vera Pauw, the organization has said it now intends to bring the Dash up to a more even place with the Dynamo.

In Chicago, while the Red Stars are an independent club, they do share a facility with MLS’ Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler moved the club to Bridgeview full time last season in order to improve facilities for his players after spending several years at Benedictine University.

However, at Toyota Park, Johnson says the Red Stars often don’t feel they aren’t getting equal access to the stadium’s facilities.

“Sometimes we feel like we’re stepping on [the Fire’s] toes or we don’t feel like we’re welcome because we’re the women’s team,” she said.

“We’re all at work. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing.”

Since its inception, league attendance numbers have risen every year and 2017 proved to be no exception. However, trends in each market vary widely and despite the overall increase, 60% of the league’s teams actually saw lower numbers last season.

The gap between the top and the bottom teams is, arguably, the greatest it has ever been which has left some worried about a league of have and have nots.

Zerboni saw those gaps before during her time in the WPS.

“There were no salary caps, there was no financial cap,” she explained. “The owners had a lot of freedom and were kind of able to do what they wanted. There wasn’t that U.S. Soccer foundation and structural foundation that set terms and set rules and set laws. Before, it was kind of a free-for-all.”

However, she thinks that the NWSL has done a much better job than its predecessor in keeping each team competitive, maintaining minimum standards, and providing a level playing field.

Sometimes that even means cutting ties with teams that aren’t keeping up.

“A lot of people were a little bit devastated to hear about Boston, or it made them a little bit worried, but from my perspective I actually think it’s a rather good thing,” said Zerboni. “If Boston wasn’t able to reach those standards that the [NWSL] has put in place and they weren’t able to foot the bill, or maybe their heart and their passion wasn’t in it anymore, either way it’s not a good place for players to play.”

Zerboni also points to Major League Soccer which itself experienced contraction in its early years and reiterated that the NWSL must do whatever it needs to do to survive.

“There have been a couple of leagues that have failed before and so our main priority, as players, as staff, in the NWSL front office, it doesn’t matter. It’s to make this thing work.”

Despite Boston’s failure, people around the league remain bullish about its future. It is widely expected that the NWSL will expand in 2019, perhaps even adding two or more teams.

Zerboni thinks people are starting to realize the potential the league holds which is why more internationals are heading to the U.S. to play and why more investors are stepping forward.

“The league has changed because it’s growing as far as how many eyes are on it and how much interest there is in the league,” she said. “Whether that’s players who want to come play from other countries, or whether that’s sponsorships and businessmen that want to get involved because they’re starting to see the writing on the wall.”

For the players, the next step forward is negotiating an official collective bargaining agreement.

Last May, they formed the NWSL Players Association, representing those players in the league whose salaries are not subsidized through U.S. Soccer or the Canadian federation.

Zerboni, who acts as the NWSLPA’s vice-president said a CBA needs to be completed “as soon as possible.”

“Nobody in this league or in the front office would have a job without the players. The players are the most important thing,” she said.

“I truly believe that the NWSL understands that and believes that as well.”

Brooks and Johnson acted as NWSLPA representatives for their teams in 2017 and all three players cited communication problems between the players and the league—a problem compounded by the fact that the NWSL has operated without a commissioner for over a year.

“We really want to know we can come to the league with any issues or concerns or feedback and they’re going to actually take it into consideration,” said Johnson.

Brooks added that it feels like sometimes the players’ concerns fall on deaf ears, saying at times, “we’ve wanted to establish communication and we’re not really hearing back until they need something from us.”

Since the resignation of Jeff Plush as NWSL commissioner last spring, managing director Amanda Duffy has become the face of the league’s front office. Despite the challenges of not having a permanent commissioner, Zerboni says Duffy is doing “an amazing job.”

Zerboni is also confident that despite its challenges, the league is on the right course.

“I think we just need to maintain what we’re doing and just keep plugging along. A lot of times you don’t want to go reinvent the wheel,” she said.

“The league is doing the right things, these clubs are doing the right things. If we just stay with it and be persistent, that’s how it will naturally grow.”

“Is it where we want to be? No. Are we on the way to be where we want to be? Yes, absolutely.”

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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