Two steps forward, one step back for NWSL after challenging offseason

After five years of small but steady growth, the NWSL suffered its first major setback when the Boston Breakers folded a week after the league's major offseason event, the College Draft.

It amounted to two steps forward, one step back for a league that has now seen three clubs fold in the last 15 months.

In the case of the Western New York Flash and FC Kansas City, though, they were replaced by the North Carolina Courage and Utah Royals, both now in the hands of more ambitious owners.

Stephen Malik, who moved the Flash to Cary in 2017, and Dell Loy Hansen, who took only two weeks to wrap up a deal to bring an NWSL team to Utah to replace FC Kansas City after the 2017 season, both operate other teams, North Carolina FC and Real Salt Lake, respectively, that give them the resources to build upon with their new women's pro teams.

Amanda Duffy, the NWSL managing director, admits the offseason was challenging with the loss of Kansas City and Boston but feels the league has emerged in a stronger position.

"We are extremely excited about the addition of Dell Loy Hansen and the Utah Royals," she said in a conference call with the media on Wednesday. "Not just with their facilities, infrastructure and resources, but their passionate commitment to the league and to the women’s game as well."

In practical terms, losing Boston left the NWSL with only nine teams for 2018, which create scheduling issues. More seriously, though, it made some question whether slow but steady will be enough for a league in which half the teams averaged less than 3,500 fans a game in 2017.

Nothing in the short term can solve some of the challenges of independent owners have at Seattle, Washington, Chicago and Sky Blue FC, but the league is expected to expand for only the third time in its history in 2019 in a big way with Barcelona linking up with MLS's LAFC in Los Angeles.

"We continue to be engaged in a number of expansion discussions with multiple groups for 2019 and beyond," said Duffy, "and we’re extremely optimistic about where those discussions are currently.

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