Not just the kids who want Alex Morgan’s autograph. Not just media pundits who are absolutely sure Megan Rapinoe is the best player in the world but couldn’t name two teams in the NWSL. Not just the kids who are out to cheer for whichever local player turned up to do a clinic with their rec-league teams.
Nothing wrong with those fans, particularly the latter. But the frustration with building a women’s soccer league has long been the breadth and depth of support.
While the Challenge Cup won’t be mistaken for the World Cup, the NWSL could benefit from the funny American tendency of getting wrapped up in events that run for 2-4 weeks. That’s the appeal of the NCAA basketball tournaments, the Olympics, the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup. It’s also starting up before MLS, before the NBA, before the NHL, before Major League Baseball and in the window with no college sports.
In all of those events, previously unknown teams and players jump into public consciousness -- sometimes for a short time, sometimes with lasting impressions. Gordon Hayward is more famous than similarly accomplished NBA players because of his heroics in the 2010 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, when his halfcourt shot came within an inch or two of lifting Butler past Duke to win it all. Devante Smith-Pelly had a brief run of fame when he kept scoring clutch goals for the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup finals.
So will this tournament introduce Bethany Balcer, a phenom out of the blue akin to Hayward, to a wider audience? Will talk-radio shows start making the case for Aubrey Bledsoe to be on the national team?
And will this finally bring the NWSL as a whole out of the national team’s shadow?
Granted, many of the games will be on a premium service -- CBS All Access, where fans of the latest Star Trek spinoffs may see “NWSL” pop up as a viewing option. But Saturday’s marquee matchup between North Carolina and Portland at 12:30 p.m. ET will be on CBS proper, leading into a PGA golf broadcast, and the final also will be on free TV.
CBS Sports Network, which is on many providers’ sports tiers, will have classic NWSL games Saturday morning and will start its erratically scheduled NWSL delayed broadcasts at 5 p.m. ET Saturday with a North Carolina-Portland replay.
But it’s something. And perhaps ESPN will pick up some highlights. They can’t subsist on Korean baseball forever.
Few, if any, sports have the disparity between international play and domestic play that women’s soccer has. The U.S. women’s basketball team is one of the most dominant teams in any sport, but hardly anyone pays attention outside the Olympics, and players can be more easily identified with the WNBA teams -- Elena Delle Donne with the reigning champion Washington Mystics, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner with the Phoenix Mercury, Sue Bird with the Seattle Storm, etc.
The absences of Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Christen Press will be a mixed blessing for the league. On one hand, Rapinoe’s platform as ESPYs host doesn’t really help a league in which she’s decided not to play. On the other hand, Rapinoe has, for better and for worse, been a black hole of publicity in which players like Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis were overlooked. This summer, more of the spotlight will be available.
National teamers’ relationship with the NWSL has long been a sore spot. That wasn’t an issue in the WUSA of the early 2000s, when the 1999 World Cup team was determined to build a professional legacy. After the WUSA, without a pro league, U.S. players got used to the idea that their team was the national team, full stop, with the 2005 collective bargaining agreement putting at least 20 players on federation salaries and benefits.
WPS managed to get full buy-in from the U.S. team, perhaps because it had been so long since a pro league and because European clubs hadn’t yet built up well-paid women’s teams. After the 2011 World Cup, players dashed back to the six remaining teams, where a lot of the U.S. national teamers were concentrated on the top teams -- three of the four playoff teams accounted for more than 70% of the minutes played on the U.S. team in 2011, while champion Western New York had a strong collection of foreign talent alongside Alex Morgan.
The NWSL has been a different story from the outset. The legal documents in the U.S. women’s lawsuit against U.S. Soccer included a November 2012 email from Becky Sauerbrunn to her reluctant teammates, imploring them to choose the NWSL over foreign leagues.
“We have to start somewhere,” she wrote.
Most players heeded Sauerbrunn’s words as well as the hints that playing in the NWSL would be best for each player’s national team futures. But Anson Dorrance was one of those who noticed that the U.S. players weren’t fully committed.
“I really disliked the arrogance some of the full national team players had for their NWSL clubs, it was actually angering,” Dorrance said in 2017. “I could watch a player playing for her club and for the national team, and I’m seeing a completely different player.”
That year, Dorrance said, U.S. players had improved their play and commitment to the NWSL. But U.S. Soccer still felt compelled to add a clause to the U.S. women’s collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing that only a small number of players under USSF contract would be allowed to play overseas -- none in the major tournament years of 2019 and 2020. (How the postponement of the Olympics to 2021 will affect the allowance of three players to go overseas next year is anyone’s guess.)
Under the mainstream media’s radar, some players have propelled themselves into the national picture with their play in the NWSL. Crystal Dunn was hardly an unknown when she joined the league, but after being omitted from the 2015 World Cup squad, she tore through the league in an attacking role. Casey Short’s steady defense for Chicago put her on the national team, and she was the most controversial omission from the 2019 World Cup roster. Alyssa Naeher’s NWSL play helped to establish her as the USA’s No. 1 goalkeeper.
So when the NWSL leads U.S. sports in getting back into action, will some players make the leap from women’s soccer cult favorites to nationally recognized athletes? Perhaps NWSLPA 2019 team of the year picks like Bledsoe, Short, Abby Erceg and Kristen Hamilton will get some attention. Maybe top draft pick Sophia Smith, who left Stanford early to go pro, will get some air time.
With women’s soccer still enjoying a post-World Cup glow that feels different than past boomlets that fizzled out, and with a country starved for live sports, anything is possible.
Photo: Hannah Wagner/Bernie Koelsch/Washington Spirit