NWSL Review: The Year Two Exit Interview
Come in, NWSL. Thanks for stopping by. I know you’re on your way out-of-town for the offseason. Are you just going home, or are you playing overseas until March? Regardless, I hope you have great offseason. You just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.
As you know, we do these exit interviews at the end of each season, but please, don’t think of this as a performance evaluation. I mean, it’s definitely is a performance evaluation -- I’m legally obligated to say that -- but I want you to think of it as a dialog. You’re evaluating me as much as we’re evaluating you! And yes, from a certain point of view, that’s also a total lie, but I want to make sure you’re comfortable.
Can I get you anything? A glass of water? Maybe another national television deal? Just asking because this might take a while. You’ve had a big year, and just looking at this list, wow there’s a lot of over.
So let’s get to it. As you know, two years isn’t very much time to establish a new professional league, so this process isn’t about comparing you to what we’d like to you be five, 10, 25 years from now. It’s about progress. All we want to see year-over-year is improvement, be that on the field, off, or in terms of your long-term potential. Right now, it’s all about career development.
So let’s talk about the skills we’d like to you develop:
On the field
I have to hand it you, NWSL. In terms of on-field product, this was a great year. You were already ahead of the game last year when you were already better than Women’s Professional Soccer. But this year, you took it up another notch.
Let’s talk about your two big differences. The first, you got almost all of the U.S. Women’s National Team talents to come back home. Megan Rapinoe got out of her contract with Lyon. Christen Press moved to Chicago . Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenburg eventually arrived in Houston. Add in Tobin Heath’s cameo in Portland, players like Amber Brooks, Sarah Hagen, and Yael Averbuch playing their parts, and the national team’s impact on the NWSL has almost hit its max. In terms of what that brings to the league, it’s obviously a plus.
I’ll be honest you, though. We’ve had some discussions among ourselves about whether this is in the best interest of the national team. Some players -- say, Sydney Leroux, or Crystal Dunn -- could probably benefit from playing in a different environment for a while. At least, a few of us have brought it up. Going forward, there’s a danger you, as a league, are just reinforcing what these players strengths without addressing their weaknesses. You might want to consider loaning more players to Europe each fall.
Ultimately, however, we decided it’s not the league’s job to make sure players are making the best choices. Your job is to improve the league, and while your partnership with U.S. Soccer is exerting some pressure on players to say home, they could still say “No”. It’s not like the money’s better over here. That they’re not has helped improve the product.
But even more influential -- and, quite frankly, we’re really excited about this -- was getting somebody like Kim Little to come over. An international player (Scotland) of that caliber? One that comes in, wins MVP? That’s a huge boost to the product.
Nahomi Kawasumi (Japan)? Veronica Boquete (Spain)? Well done. Between those players, Western New York’s slew of exciting Spaniards, as well as players like Jodie Taylor in Washington (England), Nadine Angerer (Germany) and Steph Catley in Portland (Australia), the league’s injected a huge amount of talent. And it shows on the field.
Honestly, NWSL, I was in Seattle for the title game on Sunday, and I was blown away. That’s a product that rivals what you see in UEFA Champions League. We couldn’t have asked for a better national television showcase. Just ... bravo.
Last year, at this time, we couldn’t have anticipated this kind of improvement. You’ve gone above and beyond, but now, you’ve also set a high bar. As much as you exceeded expectations, we’re going to expect this kind of talent going forward.
On the sidelines
Last year, as you know, we pointed out a number of situations where we thought you could improve, and to your credit, a lot of them got addressed. Washington’s coaching situation was much better this season, and the results showed on the field (the team went from last place to the playoffs). Randy Waldrum won praise from his colleagues for his first year with expansion Houston. Paul Riley, a two-time Coach of the Year in WPS, returned to the sidelines in Portland. There were lot of places were the quality of coaching took a step forward.
More importantly, and this is something we weren’t anticipating last year, the competition among coaches is starting to get fierce. Laura Harvey’s really set a bar in Seattle. Vlatko Andonovski was Coach of the Year last year, but even he adjusted this year in Kansas City. Established names like Riley and Aaran Lines in Rochester are really being tested. They’re going to have to come stronger next season. That’s a good thing.
You can see in the trouble Riley and this year that your standard is higher. He was clearly the best coach in WPS, but in his first year in Portland, he came up short.
He’ll adjust. Lines will adjust. And the league will be much better for it. You’ve done a great job of pushing the envelope on the sidelines as well as one the field.
In the stands, off the field
We knew this was going to be your biggest challenge, and honestly, there are still some situations that worry us. Sky Blue seems like a long-term challenge. Does that team have a place in a league that’s successful two, four, eight years from now? They’ve got significant hurdles.
Boston also has issues, both on the field and off, while Western New York took a hit at the turnstiles this season. Both of those clubs have established track records, but as the league moves forward, will they be able to move with it? Western New York has the resources to adjust. Does Boston?
Those are the worries. Other places, we see the progress. Chicago drew better than last year, as did Seattle. Like Kansas City, the Reign elected to get closer to the heart of their city to try to be more assessable. Hopefully, that pays off in the long run.
Portland, of course, is your standard, but it’s not realistic to expect other teams to draw that many fans. They’re a terrible barometer. We’re here to measure progress, not success. In that light, more teams are making progress, perhaps more than we saw in either WPS or the Women’s United Soccer Association. It’s not difficult to imagine most of these teams surviving beyond this World Cup/Olympics cycle.
In fans’ homes
Offering all the games for free on YouTube continues to work. And the fact that almost every club’s broadcasts improved this year? That certainly helped. Right now, giving people access to as much of your soccer as possible is paramount. In that regard, mission accomplished.
Obviously, the quality of the broadcasts can improve. For the most part, you’ve solved the technical issues this season, but that’s not enough. At some point, the broadcast quality has to match the level of play, and right now, it’s just not there. Your teams need to continue to find better talent to present their games, preferably ones that follow the whole league (not just the home team).
Houston did a great job this season. Between Sebastian Salazar and Jen Cooper, the Dash had a perfect combination of polish, knowledge, and ambition with its broadcast talent. You could tell Salazar, not necessarily known as a women’s soccer guy, treated the games as an opportunity. And Cooper rivaled Seattle’s Lesle Gallimore as the league’s most knowledgable color commentator. One year in, Houston’s broadcasts are the standard.
I know not every team has the resources to create that product, but that should be the goal. All the money your teams are saving on U.S. national team talent? They should be putting more of it into the broadcast.
Each game is a new opportunity to sell new fans on the league. Every team needs to approach their product with that urgency.
Supplying the national team
Let’s not be coy about why you’re here. U.S. Soccer wants you to maintain its national team stars, if not outright develop them. Without that dimension, this league doesn’t exist.
However, we recognize it’s a two-way street. You’re certainly doing your part. When I was going through your rosters before this meeting, looking at all the players who could play for the national team, I was thrilled. With every team, I could pick out one or two names that deserve more consideration at the international level.
But, as you know, that’s not happening. I know people point to Portland’s Allie Long as an example of somebody who worked her way into the team through the league, but she was on the team’s radar before the Thorns ever kicked off. It’s not your fault, but U.S. Soccer seems unwilling to look at anybody you’re developing.
What’s important to me, and I think other fans, is that you’re giving them the option. If players like Keelin Winters and Brittany Taylor can’t get a look? At least they’re making your product better on the field.
Combine that with the improvement we’ve seen from national team regulars like Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn -- going from good players to among the best in the world at their positions -- and I know you’re making an impact. Hopefully, going forward, that impact will grow.
Into the future
You’re helping U.S. Soccer now, but come 2016, you may need to stand on your own. At least, you have to be prepared for a day the federation stops cutting checks, and after the 2016 Olympics, the federation may elect to make a decision about your funding. If there’s a point where it makes sense to pull out, that’s it.
So looking across the project, trying to see how many of your teams could stand on their own in two years, I’m not sure what to think. Portland can, of course, and you’ve created the same MLS link with Houston. If there’s a league in 2017, they’re probably going to be in it, and while it’s always concerning when a women’s team is set up to play second fiddle, the league would look stronger with a few more second fiddles in the short-term.
Western New York isn’t going anywhere, while Seattle has a path to success. You’d like to think the same about Kansas City, who continue to make progress, while Washington has been a historically successful “WoSo” market. Add in Chicago, a team with dedicated ownership and management that’s chipping away at problems, and you’ve got a number of potential success stories.
Here’s the problem: I want to count to eight. I want to go over this list of teams and be able to say with confidence that, come 2017, eight teams can stand on their own. I’m not saying make money - that’s unrealistic. I’m saying they have a viable foundation, one that allows them to persist at the top-level indefinitely.
So to end this interview, I’ll ask you a question: Can you honestly count to eight? I didn’t think so, but that’s okay. When we meet again in 2016, do you think you’ll be able to then?
Well, you better get working. A lot of people are expecting this league to be around. You can’t let them down.