10 Things You Need to Know About the NWSL

With the recent World Cup win by the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, a lot of focus has been shifted to the domestic league that operates here in the United States. Experts and fans alike are now examining the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to determine if the women’s game is worth investing in. Of course, this drums up the age old debate on whether women’s sports are as entertaining and interesting as the men’s leagues.

The most effective argument for the NWSL is the performance of the USWNT and the international stars that were featured in the Women’s World Cup. Many of those international players play in the NWSL. ESPN is adding to the legitimacy of the league by signing a deal to broadcast the second half of the NWSL season.

But for people here in the U.S. who were impressed with the USWNT and the Women’s World Cup, there might be some ignorance about the domestic league that needs to be cleared up. So here are some things one should know about the NWSL before diving in.

The NWSL is nine years old

The NWSL began after the collapse of the WPS, or Women’s Professional Soccer league, in April of 2012. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) met with representatives of the defunct WPS, the W-League, a North American women’s soccer developmental organization that ceased operations in 2015, and the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) to come up with a plan for women’s soccer. They decided that a new league would be formed, starting with two teams from the WPS, the Chicago Red Stars and the Boston Breakers, and six other teams. By November 2012, they chose Cheryl Bailey as the first executive director of the NWSL. Bailey served as the general manager of the U.S. Women’s National team from 2007 to 2011.

The first game ever played in the NWSL was on April 13, 2013, when the Portland Thorns played FC Kansas City. The result was a 1-1 draw.

Currently there are nine teams in the NWSL, but membership has seen some changes over the league’s short history

The original teams in the NWSL consisted of some holdouts from the WPS (Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC (New Jersey), Boston Breakers, Western New York Flash), Portland Thorns, Reign FC (Tacoma), Washington Spirit, and FC Kansas City. The Boston Breakers disbanded in 2017 and the league expanded, adding the Houston Dash (2014) and the Orlando Pride (2016). FC Kansas City’s contracts and assets were transferred into another expansion team, the Utah Royals FC, in 2017. Western New York Flash was sold in 2016 and relocated to North Carolina and became the North Carolina Courage. They played in the United Women’s Soccer league, the second tier league, until 2017. They were promoted into the NWSL in 2018.

Most of the players are from North America, but international roster spots are available…and valuable

Each team is allowed a minimum of 20 players on its roster, with a maximum of 22. Supplemental players can raise this limit to 26. The original setup for roster makeup involved having the U.S., Mexico, and Canada allocate a limited number of national team players to each team. The U.S. got three allocations while Mexico and Canada received two. Each team was also awarded four roster spots for international players (outside North America). These spots could be traded, leading to some teams with more international players than others. The rest of the roster spots were filled with U.S. players using a draft system.

Currently, Mexico does not allocate players anymore since they established their own women’s league.

There is a league salary cap…and it’s tiny

For the 2019 season, each team was allocated $421,500 for player salaries. The minimum salary a player can make is $16,538 and the maximum is $46,200. However, U.S. and Canadian national players allocated to each team are paid by their nation’s soccer federation, not their team, and their salaries do not count against their team’s cap. International players are also subject to the salary cap limits.

Players have also taken steps to ensure their rights as players by forming the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA) in 2017. All non-allocated players, including unpaid amateur players, can be members. National team players are covered by their national team’s labor organizations, so they are not eligible to join. The NWSLPA is led by Meghann Burke, a civil rights attorney and former WPS players’ union organizer.

The League Championship is decided in an interesting way

Each team plays the other eight teams three times a year, with 12 games at home and 12 away. The league table is decided using the same method used all over the world: three points for a win, one for a draw, ties are broken via goal differential (how many goals each team has scored compared to how many they’ve allowed others to score). The team with the most points at the end of the season is crowned the regular season champion and awarded the NWSL Shield, but it doesn’t stop there.

Because American audiences love the thrill of a playoff season, the top four teams in the league qualify for the NWSL playoffs. The teams are seeded by points, with the top team playing the fourth and the second playing the third. The winning teams after the one-game knockout semifinal play each other for the NWSL crown. So yes, the team with the most points could very well not be the champion after the playoffs.

The league is run by a former pro player and seasoned manager

Currently, the NWSL is run by Amanda Duffy, a former pro player who played domestically in the now defunct W-League and internationally with Sweden’s Danmarks IF. She also has extensive management experience having interned in college in the United Soccer League (USL) front office for six months and was the general manager of Louisville FC of the USL, where she helped set record attendance numbers.

She was hired by the NWSL in 2016 to be the director of operations. She took over the administrative duties of commissioner after then commissioner Jeff Plush resigned. She was promoted to president in January 2019.

The North Carolina Courage are the current reigning champions

In 2018, the North Carolina Courage took home both the NWSL Shield and the Championship after placing first in the league by 15 points and beating the Portland Thorns 3-0 in the championship game. Striker Jessica McDonald scored two goals in the effort despite the Courage only maintaining 40 percent of the possession.

Portland Thorns are tied with FC Kansas City for the most titles in league history with two.

The league’s all-time best scorer is an Aussie

The Chicago Red Star striker and Australian national team player Sam Kerr currently holds the record for most goals in NWSL history with 71 (as of the publication of this article)in 114 games. She is currently the league leader in goals with 10 for the 2019 season and has been the highest scorer for the past two seasons.

The U.S. player with the most goals in NWSL history is Jessica McDonald, with 44 in 130 games. USWNT star Alex Morgan is sixth with 35 goals in 87 games.

Trying to watch NWSL games has been a bit of a hassle

In 2017, the NWSL signed a three-year broadcasting deal with A&E Networks to broadcast 22 regular season games and three postseason games on the Lifetime Network. This was the longest deal in league history, as their previous deals with ESPN and Fox Sports had been one-year deals to broadcast fewer games. A&E also purchased 25 percent of the league in the deal, earned two seats on the league board, and made Lifetime a league-wide kit sponsor.

However, A&E pulled out of their deal in February 2019, ending the relationship. Their stake in the league was returned but Lifetime remained a sponsor. Currently, games can be watched via the ESPN deal on ESPN and ESPN2 and Yahoo Sports broadcasts select games every week on their website and app.

The future of the league is fragile, but hopeful

Even though the NWSL is young, it hasn’t been immune to problems. The most notable as of late involved Sky Blue FC’s front office mishandling of players on and off the field. In 2016, a match played on a field that did not meet NWSL measurement standards drew criticism of the league from players and critics alike.

The most recent criticism involved the NWSL’s lack of capitalizing on the success of the Women’s World Cup. The USWNT’s surgical destruction of Thailand in their opening game drew 2.26 million American viewers and a 525% increase in digital views on FOX. Despite so many eyes on the Cup, the NWSL and its teams saw very little increase in interest in terms of social media response. No long term marketing and social media plan seems to be in place.

The ESPN deal is a huge step toward growing the league. More eyes on the product means more advertising revenue and sponsorships. A long term deal to regularly broadcast NWSL games is vital to supporting the league’s expansion plans as well. NWSL President Amanda Duffy has announced that plans to expand to 14 teams in 2020 are already being considered. Atlanta and Minnesota are being considered for expansion teams while Barcelona, the most successful club in Spain, is considering fielding a women’s team as well.