By Paul Kennedy
This should have been a good week for the National Women's Soccer League.
The U.S. women's
national team roster for the Olympics was announced on Tuesday
and 17 of the 18 players
selected play in the NWSL. Meghan Klingenberg
and Christen Press
were alternates in 2012 but later returned from Sweden, where they were playing, and joined teams in the NWSL,
facilitating their spots on the national team. Allie Long
is the poster child for the NWSL, a player who has toiled in the league for four seasons. She didn't get a callup to the
national team during its 2015 Women's World Cup championship but served notice with a Best XI season for the Portland Thorns (10 goals) and jumped into the mix when brought in for a friendly against
Colombia in April. Without the NWSL, Long would have never made the Rio 18.
On Saturday, the Thorns drew 16,942 fans -- more than five MLS teams average -- for a game against FC Kansas
City played in the rain and without national team players like Long away preparing for the Olympics.
But all that was overshadowed by the fiasco at Frontier Field
, the Rochester baseball stadium where the Western New York Flash
and Seattle Reign played on the baseball outfield with dimensions of 100 by 58. Reign coach Laura Harvey
called the decision to play the game a "farce."
This wasn't the first time
teams have played on a baseball or football field with narrow dimensions. The New York Generals once played a game at Yankee Stadium on a field with a width of 50 yards so as to, like the Flash and
Reign, not play on the infield on which Mickey Mantle
, by then a first baseman, played. San Jose's Spartan Stadium was so narrow and the field so close to the stands that Scotsman
, playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps, once took a swig of beer after being offered it as he set up to take a corner kick.
What is different today is NFL and MLB
stadiums are now built with soccer dimensions in mind and soccer-specific stadium are built. That includes Rochester's Rhinos Stadium, opened a decade ago but unavailable on Saturday.
What is also different is the powerful voice of U.S. women's national team players who have the megaphone of social media to lash out at what they see is wrong. In Chicago for the friendly against
South Africa, they piled on. Stars Megan Rapinoe
, Alex Morgan
and Carli Lloyd
all ripped the NWSL for allowing the game to be played and disrespecting NWSL players.
The USWNT and NWSL is an uneasy partnership.
The NWSL, the third women's pro league in the last 15 years, would not exist without the support of U.S. Soccer, which subsidizes the league
by paying for the salaries of national team players and league staff. And players like Klingenberg and Press (and even Long) might not have returned from Europe if playing in the NWSL was not
important for their national team aspirations.
But all that comes at a price. The NWSL cleared its 2016 schedule for all FIFA windows -- as well as 25 days before, during and after the
Olympics -- but national team players were unavailable last weekend and the weekend before that when they were brought into camp. MLS has many of the same issues with national team conflicts but isn't
as reliant as the NWSL is on its U.S. stars, nor are the U.S, men, frankly, as popular.
The U.S. stars earn far more than other NWSL players. If you include national team bonuses and
endorsements, the top players make at least several times the entire salary budget of $278,000 under which NWSL teams operate. Small rosters mean there are situations like what happened last weekend
to the Houston Dash, which didn't have a backup keeper for its game at Sky Blue FC, or the Thorns and KC Kansas City, which both used amateur callups in their game in Portland. (One of them,
, has had a pro career dating back a decade.)
The U.S. stars have previously called out work conditions in the NWSL, notably last season when the visiting hotel
in Kansas City was found to have bed bugs. But until recently, other issues were not forcibly addressed. (The irony of the Frontier Stadium fiasco, of course, is that Rhinos Stadium, where the game
was supposed to have been played, has artificial turf, so loathed by women's players.)
The USMNT operates under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement -- or rather a CBA and a
memorandum of understanding that was recently litigated -- but the NWSL has no CBA. (After Saturday, Reign captain Keelin Winters suggested it was time for a union
.) If you don't think that there are conflicting priorities, then consider that the agreement
between U.S. Soccer and the women's players association calls for no national team player to make less than the highest-paid non-national team player in the NWSL. Hope Solo
it's time for change -- the title of her blog
in which she blasts the NWSL for some of the conditions on the road, from the practice
fields to locker room facilities and water jugs to team hotels (she said one hotel in Portland featured
a pornography convention where people dressed up like
animals). All conditions far less than most players were used to in college.
It doesn't make the situation any better, but many of the same shortcomings Solo ticked off existed in the
days of the old NASL. All of it underscores the good news and bad news of the NWSL in Year 4. The good news is that the NWSL is the longest-operating U.S. women's pro league; the bad news is that it's
the longest-operating U.S. women's pro league. To survive, the NWSL started out as a bare-bones operation and it largely remains such.
The same disparity in pay between players like Solo,
Rapinoe, Morgan and Lloyd and the NWSL rank and file exists between the average attendance of the NWSL teams operated by MLS teams and those teams independently owned. Portland is averaging 16,362
fans a game, more than four times each of the bottom six teams is averaging.
The crazy thing about the situation in Rochester is that the Flash was promoting Frontier Stadium as a
"special place" -- the USL Rhinos used to play there, using the infield -- and Saturday's game drew the team's second largest crowd of the season -- even without players like Solo on hand.
The Flash dates back to 2008 when it started in Buffalo in the W-League and later played in Women's Professional Soccer and Women's Premier Soccer League Elite, winning titles in all three leagues,
it should be said. What happened before and at Saturday's game against Seattle suggests the Flash might be in over its head but it is a survivor. How do you criticize the Sahlen family, owner of the
Flash, when so many others have bailed so unceremoniously on women's soccer?
Solo says she and her national team players stand united and are using their platform to support their NWSL
teammates. They created an “Equal Play Equal Pay” T-shirt to promote their fight for equal pay and are directing 100 percent of the proceeds to the NWSL Players Trust Fund.
That's all fine and good, but meaningful change will only come not at the bargaining table where Solo and her U.S. teammates are attempting to hammer out a new CBA with U.S. Soccer but if they use
their leverage to help Winters and their other NWSL teammates unionize and have their own bargaining unit.