The next 15 months will determine whether the balance of power in women’s football will shift to Europe or remain in the United States.
This fall, several US players are getting competitive games in England’s WSL while the USA’s NWSL plays mini-seasons and the women’s national team has no one to play, thanks to the USA’s bungled Covid-19 response.
They’ve gone with coach Vlatko Andonovski’s blessing and perhaps a hasty revision to the national team’s contract, the postponement of the Olympics and the declining number of players on federation contracts complicated the deal’s restrictions on overseas play, and neither US Soccer nor team representatives would confirm whether those restrictions were waived or rewritten.
As sanguine as US coaches and officials may be over the prospect of Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle leading Manchester City into a pair of derbies (November 15th league, November 19th cup) against Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Manchester United, the marquee players’ movement overseas has bolstered the WSL’s push to supplant the NWSL as the world’s best women’s soccer league. Like the Premier League, the WSL is becoming an international brand – games are now broadcast in the USA on NBC’s networks.
“I think you’ve got to look at the quality of players that are now coming to our league,” said Emma Hayes, coach of defending WSL champion Chelsea and the former coach of the Chicago Red Stars, “It’s a destination for top players worldwide. Every game’s a tough game.”
US women’s players’ support of their home country’s league is baked into their current collective bargaining agreement. In addition to national team salaries ($100,000) for some players, US Soccer pays NWSL salaries (at least $70,000) for at least 22 players. In exchange, the team agreed to limit the number of players under federation contracts who could go overseas.
But that deal expires at the end of 2021. The only problem is that the team and the federation are still bogged down in a lawsuit over pay. A judge ruled in US Soccer’s favour on most of the serious issues, so the team is both appealing that decision while proceeding on the less controversial matters the judge left intact. The sides are due in court in January, but Covid-19 has made US dockets even less predictable than usual.
Can a team negotiate a deal on future pay and conditions when it’s asking for back pay in excess of what the federation plans to have on hand after shoring up development programs and paying its lawyers?
“The practical issue is that the lawsuit creates a moving target for what is ‘fair’ under the CBA,” said UCLA law professor Steven Bank, who has written extensively on the multitude of soccer-related lawsuits in the USA.
The women have been asking for “equal pay” in a far different sense than the purported “equal pay” deals in Norway, Australia and England, where the men’s and women’s teams receive equal percentages of tournament bonuses but not equal dollar amounts. And defining “equal” is difficult when the women get salaries, NWSL subsidies and benefits while the men only get bonuses.
Any decisive victory for the women in the courtroom or boardroom could be Pyrrhic. The failure of the US men to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and the calamitous results for US women’s youth teams have highlighted a development system in drastic need of repair. Paying large sums to current players could easily leave the federation ill-equipped to meet future needs.
Unless NWSL owners can break open the bank, a typical 2023 World Cup-bound US player may be rounding off her development not in a California training camp or an Oregon stadium but in Manchester.
If that’s an unsettling prospect for US fans accustomed to seeing World Cup champions in NWSL grounds, consider this: They can’t all go to Europe. For all the growth in the global game, most players are still getting salaries comparable to journalists, not lawyers. England may also limit the number of international players down the road. And a free market may be the next logical step away from a “national team” with a rigid roster. Instead of having 16 to 24 players with protected status, maybe we’ll see 40 to 50 players scattered throughout the NWSL, WSL and elsewhere competing for spots.
Serendipitously, US Soccer is better prepared for such a scenario than it once was. Andonovski is confident that he and general manager Kate Markgraf can keep tabs on players who aren’t right under their noses, and he believes they can still build a cohesive team from diverse club environments.
“Every player that is European-based, if they’re healthy and performing well, they’re going to be in our plans and will be called for upcoming camps,” Andonovski said, “In terms of style of play, it’s not going to be any different than players in NWSL – they all have different styles and different philosophies. That’s why we try to keep them engaged when they’re outside our environment.”
So players no longer feel quite as compelled to stay put to remain on the national-team radar.
“I think he’s going to do everything in his power to keep an eye on them,” said OL Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy, “That’s why players feel comfortable going overseas.”
That’s important for the next generation because Europe isn’t just a place for veterans to pull in large pay checks. A young player like Murphy, who played her last college season at Rutgers in 2017, can take another developmental step without escaping the national team’s notice.
“My intentions going overseas were to get a bunch of games under my wing and get exposure to high-level soccer players from all over the world and be in an uncomfortable environment,” Murphy said, “That challenged me on and off the field. I was aware I had a lot of growing up to do.”
Perhaps US women’s soccer also is ready to grow up in a sense, adapting to a new reality of global soccer. But it still depends on whether the people in charge (federations and clubs) are ready to grow up as well.