Since its inception, the National Women’s Soccer League and the US Women’s National Team have been linked.
Amidst the many exhibits the US Soccer Federation introduced during their shameful dispute of the USWNT’s equal-pay lawsuit (which was dismissed in May 2020, but which may still be appealed following the parties’ recent settlement agreement), The Athletic’s Meg Linehan unearthed a November 2012 email from defender Becky Sauerbrunn urging members of the national team to back the newly formed league. Sauerbrunn pointed to the league as an opportunity to create a stable environment for young talent to continue to grow without having to entirely rely on a national team call up for support. Her email clearly didn’t fall on deaf ears. Since the NWSL’s inception, it has boasted almost the entirety of the USWNT’s roster among its teams.
However, a recent series of notable overseas signings has begun to put that connection to the test. Since the beginning of last year, a number of high profile USWNT players have transferred from the NWSL to European clubs. When the NWSL restarts in 2021, it will likely be without some of the most recognizable names in US (and world) soccer: Tobin Heath, Christen Press (both at Manchester United), Rose Lavelle, and Sam Mewis (both at Manchester City) all elected to join clubs in the FA Women’s Super League in England.
As Steven Goff summarized in The Washington Post last September, the rationale behind the decisions these players made isn’t simple. Last year, all four USWNT players in question elected to join the WSL in a time when the NWSL’s play schedule was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the timing of a league restart was still unknown. Meanwhile, the WSL season began on schedule in August, which while questionable at best from a public health standpoint, has at least guaranteed playing time and a salary to all players.
Now, a next-generation USWNT star has decided to play her trade in Europe, causing levels of concern to rise. Catarina Macario, a Brazilian-American phenom who has spent the last three years playing collegiately at Stanford, announced her signing with Olympique Lyonnais Femenin on January 11th. ESPN reports that the contract will last two and a half years. Macario is an incredibly talented forward, who moves intelligently without the ball and possesses both a great first touch and an absolutely lethal right foot. Many believe that she is the future of the USWNT front line and for good reason.
Here again, there are levels to Macario’s decision. ESPN reports that Macario was specifically drawn by the opportunity to compete in the Champions League, which pits European clubs from across the continent against each other. Furthermore, Lyon is widely considered the strongest club in world football, and she would have the chance to play alongside some of the best in the business. But Macario’s status as a collegiate player, and the fact that this decision follows in the wake of other notable departures to overseas clubs, has called into question some of the structures built into the NWSL.
Foremost among these is the NWSL draft. By foregoing the draft and signing directly with a European club, Macario was able to keep her fate in her own hands and choose exactly where to start her career. The NWSL relies on the collegiate athletic system to feed young players into the system. Putting aside the very legitimate criticism that this system fails to allow young athletes across all sports to appropriately profit off of their play, it also means that young stars like Macario don’t have control over where they play.
The second major factor to this decision is one which was doubtless also on the minds of Macario’s soon-to-be compatriots when they made the switch to Europe last year: money. As of the 2020 season, the NWSL’s salary guidelines set the cap at $650,000, and the maximum a club can pay a single player is $50,000. There are two notable exceptions to this maximum: if a player is allocated by the US or Canadian national teams, or if the player is being paid with allocation money. In the case of the former, the federation subsidizes the player’s full salary in return for them choosing to play in the NWSL. That salary for USWNT-allocated players starts at $100,000, and by some reports can go up to $400,000. In comparison, allocation money is a new system which allows teams to purchase up to $300,000 in additional cap space from the league to spend on star players not already paid by the US or Canadian soccer federations.
For Macario, whose status as a US international will likely be finalized soon, that federation salary is no small amount of money in the context of the standard professional women’s soccer contract. But Macario would have to rely on the USSF using one of its 22 allocation spots on her, and if that were to happen, it’s unlikely she’d earn anything more than the base $100,000 due to her youth. That’s where European clubs can offer more. The WSL, Ligue 1 Femenin (which Lyon play in), and other European leagues operate within a “soft cap”, which ties the maximum amount clubs are able to spend on players to each club’s total revenue. Since nearly all top European clubs have extremely lucrative men’s branches, they’re able to pump additional money into their women’s branches to increase the amount they’re able to pay their players. This is what allowed Chelsea to sign Australian superstar Sam Kerr to a 2 year contract reportedly nearing $1 million in value in 2019. For Press, Heath, Mewis, and Lavelle, the deal is even sweeter: due to the effects of the pandemic, all four players were guaranteed their 2020 USWNT salaries in addition to whatever they make overseas.
Taking all of these details into account, there’s reasonable concern among media members that the NWSL’s rules are jeopardizing its ability to compete for top talent. Limitations on transfer fees, salaries, and how players’ rights are controlled when they enter the league are all effective at maintaining a strong competitive balance, but can be road blocks when it comes to attracting and retaining the world’s best. In light of this concern, some have suggested doing away with the draft entirely. There’s also the troubling idea that, in the current system, teams hold more control over a young player’s fate than the player does themselves.
Ultimately there are no easy answers for the league here, but none of this is to say that the NWSL is struggling. By all indications, it’s actually growing at an outstanding rate. Commissioner Lisa Baird has expertly navigated the league through the various tribulations of 2020, and the Challenge Cup and Fall Series were rousing successes in terms of viewership, quality of play, and player safety. The salary cap continues to grow year over year, as does investment in the league from sponsors and media companies. Even the size of the league is changing, as three new expansion teams (Louisville, Los Angeles, and Sacramento) will have joined the league by the start of the 2022 season, bringing the total to 12 teams.
The final piece to all of this is that it’s entirely possible that Macario and her USWNT teammates will return to the US at the end of their contracts. For starters, that USWNT salary won’t last through their WSL contracts, and they’ll need to return to the NWSL to start receiving it again. Additionally, the draw of playing closer to home is very real. And finally, as Sauerbrunn’s email illustrates, many of these players are aware that the strength of the NWSL doesn’t just serve the current generation of US soccer stars. It serves the next generation as well.
For more women’s soccer thoughts and opinions from Pratap, check out his author-page or Twitter.
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