Europe’s Leagues Are Overtaking The NWSL. That’s A Win For Women’s Soccer | Women’s Football

Spread the love

For much of the time women’s soccer has had an official World Cup, especially after the turn of the century, the road to success passed through the United States.

If the World Cup that has just passed has taught us anything, it’s that the road through the States is increasingly the road not taken.

Even before fully professional soccer existed, some players crossed the ocean to play in what was arguably the best competition in the world – the USA’s college leagues. Sarina Wiegman, whose coaching resume now includes consecutive Euro championships and back-to-back World Cup finals, played at North Carolina alongside US stars Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck. Charmaine Hooper, the top goal-scorer for the Canadian national team other than Christine Sinclair (later a college player at Portland), lined up against them at NC State. Kelly Smith, to this day arguably England’s best player ever, played at Seton Hall.

The first US pro league, the WUSA, drew most of the best players in the world. Sun Wen and Gao Hong from China. Sissi and Katia from Brazil. Dagny Mellgren and Hege Riise from Norway. Best of all, Germany’s Birgit Prinz and Maren Meinert, who was named the last MVP of the league a few months before scoring the tying goal in Germany’s 2003 World Cup win.

After the WUSA’s collapse, the USA endured five summers with no full-fledged pro league until WPS launched in 2009 with lower budgets and stronger competition for global talent. But it still drew many players of note in the 2011 World Cup from England, Sweden, Brazil and eventual champions Japan – including the magnificent Homare Sawa, the Golden Ball winner.

WPS went away the year after that Cup, and the NWSL popped up in 2013. In 2015, that league still accounted for many players from Concacaf neighbors Canada and Mexico, and the trade routes with England and Germany were not yet shut down. The best Spanish player at the time, Vero Boquete, bounced between the NWSL and Europe.

But when Spain beat England in the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday, no NWSL players were on either team’s roster. Only three NWSL players – Sweden’s Sofia Jakobsson and Australia’s Emily van Egmond and Alex Chidiac – were in the semi-finals. Only five NWSL players – the three who advanced to the semis, plus Japan’s Jun Endo and Hina Sugita – were in the quarter-finals.

See also  Romelu Lukaku: Inter Milan Chief Says Chelsea Striker Has 'great Desire' To Return To San Siro

Australia’s team shows the change most vividly. In 2019, more than half the team played in the NWSL, and another was in college at UCLA.

It’s not as though the NWSL has suddenly and completely dried up. The league would have had much more of a presence in the semi-finals if Brazil and Canada – and, of course, the USA – had advanced. In the Western Hemisphere, at least, the NWSL is easily the top league.

And the NWSL is, by most metrics, in good shape. The league’s salary cap, a limit on the amount each team can spend to pay its players, has soared from $200k in 2013 to $1.375m in 2023. Sprawling investigations of various abuses by coaches could be seen as a warning flag on coaches’ behavior, or they could be seen as a sign that the league and US Soccer are taking abuse problems seriously. (Or perhaps a sign of going overboard – Vera Pauw has fought back against various allegations, while fellow former Houston coach James Clarkson is out of work even though an investigation revealed that “a majority of players expressed the view that Clarkson’s treatment of players did not rise to the level of abuse or misconduct”.) Celebrity owners have sent club values skyrocketing – from barely $5m a few years ago up to $35m, $40m, even $100m, according to a Sportico analysis.

But the country that plays host to the most World Cup players is now England. An analysis of the official World Cup rosters, a useful snapshot that doesn’t take into account the predictable flurry of signings after the Cup, finds 108 players based in the sport’s country of origin, where women’s soccer was banned for much of the 21st century. The USA has 88, but when you subtract the players in US colleges, non-NWSL clubs and youth clubs, the number in the NWSL drops to 60. (The league site lists 61 players, including three that are on the way elsewhere and two that are on the way in.) Taking that calculation into account, Spain ranks ahead of the USA with 69 players at the Cup.

new balance

By comparison: In 2015, with just 24 teams in the competition, 29 players based in England were at the Cup, as were 21 in Spain. Most of those players were based in their home countries.

See also  Nikos Dabizas tells Newcastle to focus on forgotten Premier League gamers

That shift isn’t necessarily down to anything the NWSL is doing wrong. It’s what English clubs, along with a few clubs in Spain and elsewhere across Europe, are doing right.

A few years ago, only Lyon, the occasional Swedish club and the top German clubs had strong professional squads. But in 2018, the Women’s Super League in England went fully professional, and a lot of top talents have migrated there. Barcelona went pro in 2015 and gradually acquired many of the best players in Spain, along with some carefully chosen world-class players from elsewhere. Real Madrid took over an existing women’s team, Club Deportivo TACÓN, in 2020 and also has several players on Spain’s Cup-winning team.

skip past newsletter promotion

And so the era of the European superclub is truly underway. All told, Barcelona alone had 18 players at this year’s Cup – 11 on the rosters for the final (nine Spain, two England) and also including the best player in Africa, Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala. Chelsea matched that number. Arsenal and Manchester City had 15 each. Lyon, one of the first clubs to break the bank on women’s soccer, had 13, one shy of rival PSG. Wolfsburg also had 13, the most among German clubs. Roma had 14, eight of them on Italy’s squad.

The European pipeline to the NWSL still exists, and some players are still coming across the Pacific from Japan, which also has re-launched its top women’s league with some success in recent years. A lot of these players, though, didn’t make the rosters of their national teams for one reason or another. None of the English or French players in the NWSL made it to the World Cup, though Amandine Henry was only scratched off the French roster when she suffered a calf injury in July. The league has two players from Spain, neither of whom has much experience with the national team that lifted the Cup.

See also  Italian papers are scathing in evaluation of Roberto Mancini's aspect after Northern Eire draw

It’s not as though the USA’s influence is completely fading. A country as diverse as the USA will always have its share of players who develop into professionals and then declare their soccer allegiance to another country, anywhere from Ireland to Nigeria. The Caribbean nations of Jamaica and Haiti drew extensively from US colleges, the Philippines found many US-based players who aren’t in the pros, and South Korea fielded 16-year-old New Jersey youth player Casey Phair. And the unique prospect of a college scholarship still has some drawing power – Josefine Hasbo, who played in all four of Denmark’s World Cup games, is in her third season at Harvard.

But college soccer is entering a state of flux. NWSL teams are now signing players in their teens, well before they set foot on a college campus. And as football (the kind with helmets and face masks) drives college conferences into a geography-defying realignment, college soccer’s place in the mix could be threatened. The allure of being a student-athlete may fade if teams are required to travel 2,000 miles for a conference game in the middle of the week, an ideal situation for neither a student nor an athlete.

US fans may lament the loss of their perch atop the world’s list of talent showcases. The chances of seeing an international phenom like Lucy Bronze (one year at North Carolina) are fading. Where US leagues once commanded the presence of nearly every US player of significance, Lyon now has the current US captain (Lindsey Horan) and the top US player in The Guardian’s most recent ranking of the top 100 players in the world (Catarina Macario). Another player in the top 100, Mia Fishel, spurned the NWSL to sign with Mexican club Tigres and has since moved to Chelsea.

For players, though, this expanded marketplace is good news. If a player can’t command a top salary with an NWSL club, a European club might be able to offer a bit more. Solid options in Japan and Australia also give players more freedom to find the right fit.

And when we look back at the 2000s, when the WUSA burned out and left few options for players to earn a decent living in the sport anywhere in the world, it’s hard to say the game isn’t in a better place now.

Source link

Spread the love