CSN Mid-Atlantic's Sebastian Salazar is at the Rio Olympics covering the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team. He'll be sharing regular updates from Brazil via CSNmidatlantic.com and on Twitter (@SebiSalazarCSN) and Facebook (facebook.com/SebiSalazarCSN).
With 17 of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 18 Olympians playing professionally in the National Women’s Soccer League, there’s little arguing that the league has had a vast impact on U.S. Head Coach Jill Ellis’s squad.
But the league’s true value is perhaps best catalogued on an individual basis. Each player is capable of offering their own testimony of the role the U.S. domestic league has played in their career.
The Washington Spirit’s Crystal Dunn turned the disappointment of being left off last summer’s World Cup team into an league-MVP campaign, but without the NWSL, the young striker wouldn’t have had an obvious showcase to prove to the U.S. staff what they’d missed out on.
“It gave me a platform when I wanted to be at the World Cup but couldn’t,” Dunn said the day before making her Olympic debut against New Zealand. “It provided me a stage where I could perform and show people that I’m a high-caliber player.”
While Dunn’s story is a great illustration of the role the NWSL can play in both a player’s career and the U.S. coaching staff’s player identification process, perhaps the perfect poster child for the league is Allie Long. In just the last year, the Portland Thorns midfielder has risen from the far periphery of the U.S. player pool to a starting spot at the Rio Olympics.
Long credits the league’s daily competition with making her a better player.
"There’s never really an easy game,” Long told reporters at the U.S. team hotel in Belo Horizonte. “If there’s a large score it’s usually not because the competition is easy - it’s just because the finishing was on point that day.”
“I think the NWSL has been huge,” Long added. “I’m so grateful that it’s been around and that it happened at the right time.”
Now in its fourth year, the NWSL has lasted longer than any of the other iterations of women’s professional soccer in the United States. But that’s not to say the previous leagues didn’t have an impact on the national team and some of the of the current U.S. side’s more established stars.
“I’m really kind of a baby of WPS,” said U.S. co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who played for the Washington Freedom and magicJack of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer. “That was when [U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage] was at the helm and I was gone for two years trying to work my way back in. I needed a platform where I could play at a high level day in and day out.”
If WPS helped launch Sauerbrunn’s international career, playing in the NWSL has allowed the central defender to take her game to the next level. The 31-year-old veteran likens the style she plays with FC Kansas City to that of the national team.
“FC Kansas City prides themselves on keeping the ball and being dynamic in how they get into the attacking third,” Sauerbrunn said. “It’s really helped me to be more confident on the ball and also to see more spaces on the field that I normally haven’t looked at before.”
In addition to its impact on the individual, the NWSL has also played a role in the U.S. team’s overall readiness for Rio. The league’s steadily competitive environment prepares players for the grind of what could be six games over a 16-day stretch.
“[The NWSL] has prepared us for where we are right here,” Dunn noted. “Every game is intense so the nine [league] games we played before we got here were really great for us.”
The U.S. rounds out group play on Tuesday night against Colombia in Manaus, the most populous city of the Amazon rainforest. Kickoff is slated for 6 P.M. ET on NBCSN.