A sellout crowd of 22,000 fans packed Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles on Friday for a party unlike any the National Women’s Soccer League has ever seen. Angel City FC hosted its first regular-season match, rolling out the pink carpet (because red would be too on-trend) for a who’s-who list of celebrity owners, players who waited full careers for the moment and fans who willed the team into existence.
It was a fitting way to kick off the new NWSL season that marks a decade of existence for the league. Two prior attempts at professional women’s soccer in the United States failed after three seasons, so getting to Season 10 is worth celebrating. The arrival of Angel City — along with fellow expansion club San Diego Wave FC — suggests that, among other metrics, the NWSL could finally be moving out of its survivalist roots and into growth mode.
Yet reminders of its collective naivety linger. Early last week, the league announced the suspension of Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson, pending further investigation. New NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman was on the job less than a week when she got that news. After a reckoning last season prompted by reports of abuse across the league, the NWSL is still emerging from what everyone hopes is its darkest hour.
So, the NWSL enters its 10th-anniversary season in a complicated place. It is a league that, on one hand, continues in a way that suggests its ceiling is nowhere in sight. Yet it’s also a league that still finds it hard to get out of its own way at times, something Berman has promised to address through more concentrated staffing and planning.
Ultimately, Berman and the 12 ownership groups must address existential questions of a different variety than they’re used to. ”How are we going to make it?” must be replaced with, ”How do we make this league the best? And what does that look like?” Navigating those conversations will be difficult, especially amid the backdrop of ongoing investigations that still may expose further rot within the league.
As league leadership ostensibly goes down that path, these are some of the defining stories — on and off the field — shaping the NWSL’s present and future.
L.A., San Diego expansions teams aren’t just along for the ride
Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC are not your typical expansion teams, and they’re extremely happy to tell you that. Each squad is anchored by a U.S. women’s national team legend — Christen Press in L.A. and Alex Morgan in San Diego — which is a signal of intent both on and off the field for women’s professional soccer’s first foray into California in over a decade.
Each team circumvented the expansion draft — typically an ineffective way for new teams to build competitive rosters. Instead, they leveraged their monetary assets to assemble squads that look significantly better than previous teams did in their first seasons. (No true NWSL expansion team has finished better than last or second-to-last in its first year.)
Both squads struggled at times in the quasi-preseason tournament known as the NWSL Challenge Cup, but Angel City and San Diego opened the regular season last weekend with victories. Both could somewhat realistically dream of postseason play given that six of 12 teams will qualify for the playoffs, even if there are a handful of more talented squads.
Off the field is where the two California teams really stand out. Angel City’s sold-out opening match was no fluke — the club sold over 15,000 season tickets before that game and could lead the NWSL in attendance this year, which would end the Portland Thorns’ stranglehold on the honor since the league’s inaugural season in 2013. Angel City built its brand around a purpose-driven, women-majority-owned identity, and that’s resonating with fans.
San Diego arrives to a more modest backdrop, but still one with potential. The Wave franchise was supposed to play in Sacramento, California until billionaire Ron Burkle backed out of a deal with Major League Soccer, which had affected the NWSL team he was also planning to launch. Burkle successfully petitioned the NWSL’s board to move his franchise to San Diego, where the Wave have played to sold-out crowds in the cozy, 6,000-seat Torero Stadium. Their move to 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium in September will be a more telling litmus test of the market’s potential.
Also notable is that neither team has shied away from implicitly or explicitly telling the rest of the league how things need to change. They were fined by the league for announcing Press and Morgan, respectively, because they had their own visions for media rollouts of their stars. Angel City even got slapped with the largest fine in league history — $20,000 for tampering — before playing a match.
Both teams offer tangible evidence of the NWSL being at an inflection point, and early returns suggest that the league and other clubs should pay attention.
Young NWSL stars lead USWNT’s changing of the guard
The Washington Spirit collected their championship rings and hung their first banner on Sunday at Audi Field in celebration of their 2021 title. Washington defeated OL Reign, 2-1 in the preceding match, which they won in large part because of their incredible attacking trio of Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez and Ashley Hatch.
Rodman and Sanchez are the most dynamic, exciting one-two punch in the NWSL. They are crafty and audacious on the ball in ways that regularly create viral moments, and they play like a carefree, young duo unintimidated by incumbent stars. Rodman won the 2021 Rookie of the Year award as a teenager and could realistically follow it with an MVP trophy this season. She’s that good. Both players earned significant looks with the U.S. women’s national team to start 2022, a sign of the generational shift inside the league and at the international level.
Mallory Pugh is also a central player in that changing of the guard within the national team. She just turned 24 on opening day but is already entering her sixth year as a professional. She had her best season yet in 2021, leading the Chicago Red Stars to the final and earning a recall to the U.S. national team after an extended absence.
Add in Sophia Smith from the Portland Thorns, and three of the best forwards in the NWSL are Americans with an average age under 22. Press and Morgan still have roles to play in that conversation for club and country, but the arrival of the NWSL’s young stars is apparent.
A giant step forward for professionalism
The party Friday in L.A. included Berman and NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke signing the league’s first collective bargaining agreement. The moment was a formality following the announcement from the league and union three months ago that they had ratified the deal, but it was not out of place in the spotlight of a national broadcast, and in front of the eyes of a new set of fans.
The CBA dramatically increases and guarantees standards that should ensure the NWSL remains one of the best leagues in the world. Minimum salaries jumped from $22,000 in 2021 to $35,000 in 2022, with increases scheduled throughout the five-year term of the agreement. Benefits range from guaranteed travel standards and vacation time to more progressive collaboration, such as access to mental health services and leave for related reasons.
Julie Foudy joins the Futbol Americas team to discuss the new collective bargaining agreement for the NWSL.
Headlining the deal, and one of the big wins for players, is the addition of free agency. Beginning in 2023, any player with an expiring contract who has at least six years of experience in the NWSL will be eligible for free agency (thresholds decrease in the years to follow).
It is the first time in the league’s history that players will have any formal say in where they play. The NWSL’s single-entity setup means teams control rights to players even after their contracts expire. Free agency in its initial form will not create an entirely open market, but it will allow some players to have control over their futures — and it should force straggling teams to improve their standards and the desirability of their setups.
A new era for reigning champs, the Washington Spirit
Fans at Audi Field in Washington roared for new majority owner Michele Kang on Sunday as she was announced during the championship ring ceremony. Kang assumed control of the Spirit earlier this year after buying the club from Steve Baldwin and Bill Lynch for $35 million, 10 times the amount the Reign franchise sold for three years ago.
The ownership change should, one hopes, put an end to the off-field problems under Baldwin. The NWSL suspended the Spirit from all league governance last year due to investigations that found a toxic work environment, and former head coach Richie Burke was banned indefinitely for allegedly abusive behavior toward players. It got so bad that Spirit players took a public stance and demanded that Baldwin sell the team to Kang, who was a minority owner at the time.
At one point, Kang looked like she had been squeezed out of a deal when a group led by billionaire Todd Boehly entered exclusive negotiations with Baldwin. Those talks fell apart, and Boehly is now in exclusive negotiations to purchase Chelsea FC. In the background, Kang made some power moves to convince other Spirit investors to side with her, and eventually wrestled away enough support from Baldwin to leave him with only one option, which happened to be what the players wanted.
Ramifications of the Spirit’s sale to Kang are plentiful. She is the first woman of color to be the majority owner of an NWSL team. Her massive investment into the team sets a new high mark for what an NWSL franchise is worth, something that will impact future expansion as well as current teams.
Ongoing investigations into reports of abuse
Chicago sits atop the list of teams with questions surrounding ownership, following a tumultuous offseason. The Red Stars lost the league championship to the Spirit on Nov. 20, then just over 24 hours later allowed Rory Dames — the only head coach to date in its NWSL history — to resign via an abrupt, unattributed overnight news release. A Washington Post report detailing years of alleged verbal and emotional abuse by Dames toward players came shortly after (along with a follow-up alleging the “grooming” of youth players), and the Red Stars went dark for the offseason.
Longtime majority owner Arnim Whisler went almost three months without making a statement, and the Red Stars entered preseason without a full-time head coach (they eventually hired Chris Petrucelli). Questions still remain in Chicago regarding what Whisler and other leadership knew about Dames during his decade-plus at the club, and they should be answered in one of the multiple ongoing, leaguewide investigations.
Meanwhile, the fallout from an autumn that rocked the NWSL — from allegations against the Spirit’s Burke, to alleged sexual misconduct from ex-Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley toward players at multiple points in his career — is still being felt. Fans in Portland continue protesting at games, even as the club seeks to move on, and the surprise suspension last week of Clarkson in Houston brought a reminder that last season’s turmoil isn’t quite behind the league.
Sebastian Salazar is heavily critical of Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson’s handling of abuse claims at the organization.
Initial discoveries from an independent investigation jointly commissioned by the league and union led to the suspension of Clarkson, who was the only head coach of the 12 in the league to begin 2022 in the same position he was in at the start of 2021. Neither the NWSL nor the Dash offered any details as to why Clarkson was suspended, but the trend remains alarming.
Half of the league’s 10 head coaches in 2021 departed their teams under accusations of misconduct. In multiple cases, those actions went unreported by the team until independent reporting exposed them.
Moving up in the soccer world
Game-day facilities have taken a significant step forward in 2022. San Diego’s big home debut will have to wait a few months, but Angel City’s start at Banc of California Stadium was the perfect Hollywood script.
Of equal importance are the upgrades in Seattle and Kansas City. The OL Reign and the Kansas City Current both played on converted baseball fields in 2021, much to the chagrin of players and neutral observers alike. Players complained about the surfaces, with the one in Kansas City looking especially awful on TV. Optics took a further hit for each considering the Reign — formerly the Seattle Reign — were playing in Tacoma, Washington, while Kansas City’s converted baseball field was across the street from one of the best soccer stadiums in the country, the home of Sporting Kansas City.
The Current have that and more sorted out now. Children’s Mercy Park is their new, more appropriate home until the completion of a downtown stadium that will be the first built specifically for an NWSL team. Later this year, the Current will open their own dedicated training facility. Club ownership says the two will cost a combined $85 million and be 100% privately funded.
Lumen Field, meanwhile, is the new home of the Reign, bringing the club back to downtown Seattle on a permanent basis for the first time since 2018. Also the home of the NFL’s Seahawks, the 70,000-plus seats have the danger of feeling cavernous given the Reign’s average attendance, but the Seattle Sounders’ game-day atmosphere offers a snapshot of what things could look like one day for the Reign there. Lumen Field was the one and only solution right now for securing the Reign’s long-term future in the market. Its location and amenities are a major upgrade. Now, the club needs to grow into it.
Bandwagon cheat sheet: The teams that are the best bets
The Washington Spirit enter 2022 not only as the reigning champ, but the team with the fewest question marks. For those reasons, Washington is the obvious choice to be front-runner in a league that historically has rarely seen things go according to plan. Washington’s 2021 season is living proof of that.
Led by Rodman and Sanchez, the Spirit have little turnover from last year, even securing Rodman’s long-term future with a new contract that made her the league’s first million-dollar player). Aside from a pair of forfeits in 2021 due to COVID-19 protocol violations, Washington is unbeaten in its past 19 games.
The OL Reign look like the next-best team, in part because of similar continuity. The Reign’s midfield trio of Rose Lavelle, Quinn and 2021 league MVP Jess Fishlock is the most intimidating in the league. Coach Laura Harvey also is back after a few years away from the club. She was the architect of the Reign’s golden years in 2014 and 2015, when they won back-to-back NWSL Shields in dominant fashion but fell short to FC Kansas City in both championship games.
The Portland Thorns have some questions to answer under new head coach Rhian Wilkinson, along with Crystal Dunn‘s absence to give birth to her first child and Lindsey Horan’s departure on an 18-month loan at Lyon. Still, the Thorns are perennial contenders and showed why again during parts of the Challenge Cup as well as opening weekend. Christine Sinclair continues to reinvent herself, Smith is as dangerous as they come and Hina Sugita could be one of the best new additions to the NWSL.
Can the North Carolina Courage stay near the top after an extensive roster overhaul? Kerolin looks like a star in the making alongside fellow Brazilian Debinha, but gone are Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis, who both left for Kansas City, which finished last in 2021 but has shown well in the 2022 Challenge Cup semifinals.
Williams suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in the first game of the Challenge Cup, and Mewis’ return from knee issues has been slow. Injuries have been a theme of the year so far, with Williams, Orlando Pride midfielder Marta, and Chicago defender Tierna Davidson all suffering year-ending fates before the regular season started.
Davidson’s absence is a blow to the Red Stars’ hopes of another playoff run, but Chicago remains a dark horse whose success will be directly tied to the individual brilliance of Pugh. With so many unknowns entering this season, the NWSL’s mantra of being the most competitive league, top to bottom, looks like it will remain true again.