Odds are, if you are a loyal Mane Land reader, you are a soccer nut. You're probably also very familiar with most of the USL and MLS teams, since Orlando City has played in both leagues. You know the general gist, the narrative about the teams. Who's good, who's bad, who has standout players. But women's soccer is still relatively unknown - even for mainstream soccer fans .
Much will be written over the next few months, especially here at The Mane Land, covering the National Women's Soccer League and its 10 teams (yes, there's only 10!). It makes sense to do a primer now, so that as the big news from around the league hits us, you're at least familiar with the actors and can water-cooler-it-up and dazzle your coworkers with your NWSL knowledge. So let's go.
The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is the top-tier women's soccer league in the United States. It is the functional equivalent of MLS and is a member of CONCACAF. Founded in 2012, the league succeeds several prior attempts at a professional women's league through the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) 2007-2012, and the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) 2000 - 2003. The WUSA was the world's first women's soccer league in which all of the players were paid professionals.
Like previous attempts to form a men's professional league, some of the teams from WPS hung around from the WPS to the NWSL and one team, the Boston Breakers, actually hails back to WUSA days. And like previous attempts at Orlando having a professional soccer team, Orlando nearly had a WUSA team back in 2001 called the Orlando Tempest, which was relocated to North Carolina due to an inability to secure a home stadium.
The inaugural 2013 season saw a regular season average attendance of 4,270, with Portland's Thorns blasting the numbers with a high of 17,619. The 2014 season average attendance was 4,137 with Portland again crushing the average with a regular season attendance average of 13,362. Portland also managed to break an attendance record of 19,123 that year. In 2015, average attendance rose to 5,046 with Portland again leading the charge in regular attendance at 15,639. The final home game of the Thorn's season, after the World Cup, had a sell-out attendance of 21,144 at Providence Park, the first ever in the NWSL.
It is no coincidence then, with Orlando mirroring Portland's success with engaging soccer fans on the MLS side, that Phil Rawlins and the Orlando City front office would not see the same potential draw for fans to the rally behind the women's side.
The 10 teams are spread across the country, with Portland and Seattle as the only teams west of the Rockies, Houston, Kansas City, and Chicago in the Midwest, and Boston, Rochester, New Jersey, D.C. and Orlando representing the Eastern time zone. Each club is allowed a minimum of 18 and a maximum of 20 players on their roster at any time. Each team is also given three allocation slots for American national team players and two Canadian National team players. For the Pride, Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris both occupy allocation spots for the U.S. and Kaylyn Kyle and Josée Belanger occupy slots for Canada. Additionally, each team is allocated limited slots for international players, with Lianne Sanderson (England), Monica Hickmann Alves (Brazil), Steph Catley (Australia) occupying those spots for Orlando. The remaining team slots are made up through domestic players from either draft or discovery signings.
The Boston Breakers play their home matches at Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium on the Harvard University Campus, which they share with the Harvard men and women's soccer teams. The team was founded in 2008 under with same name as the previous Boston Breakers who played until 2003 when WUSA dissolved. Boston finished out the 2015 season at the bottom of the league, with a 4-13-2 (W-L-D) record. Perhaps on the back of this upsetting season, the team's former manager stepped down at the end of the season and The Breakers picked up former Liverpool Ladies coach, Matt Beard. Boston is hoping that its third-overall draft pick, Christen Westphal, and new manager can help bring success to Beantown.
Chicago's Red Stars play their home matches at the Sports Complex at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The Red Stars finished their 2015 season in second place, behind the Supporter's Shield winning Seattle Reign. Their record was 8-3-9 with 33 points, just one point ahead of third place but 10 points behind the Reign. The Local 134 is the Supporters Group for the Red Stars, the first in WPS to organize a group. The top goalscorer for the Red Stars in 2015 was USWNT player Christen Press, with 10 goals and two assists. Red Stars' Danielle Colaprico picked up the 2015 Rookie of the Year award, so good things are expected from her. Their head coach is Rory Dames, who has been with the club since 2011.
A 2014 expansion side, the Dash are one of the few league teams to play on the same pitch with their MLS counterparts--the Dynamo--at BBVA Compass Stadium. Although the stadium holds 22,000 people for regular Dynamo matches, the Dash's seating is scaled back to accommodate approximately a third of that, at 7,000 seats. Despite its finish at the bottom of the league in its inaugural year, the Dash managed to sit firmly in the pack at fifth place for the 2015 season. The manager is Randy Waldrum, a former New York Cosmos player himself, who has coached college level women's soccer for over three decades and is concurrently the women's national team head coach for Trinidad and Tobago. Houston is home to FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, Carli Lloyd.
FCKC finished out its 2015 season one point behind the Red Stars and qualified for the playoffs, where it ultimately beat the Seattle Reign for the league championship for the second year running. The game MVP, who scored the winning goal was Amy Rodriguez, a U.S. national player who has 129 caps with the USWNT. The team plays at Swope Soccer Village, the Sporting KC-owned training ground, the same location as the new USL side, Swope Park Rangers, set to debut in 2016. With a total capacity of 3,557 for league matches, attendance is clearly throttled and so larger matches are played at Sporting Park with attendance topping out in 2015 at 8,849 for opening day. Vlatko Andonovski, a former indoor soccer player, manages FCKC while simultaneously coaching an indoor league men's team--the Missouri Comets. With top league goal scorer for 2015 Lauren Holiday and USWNT defender Leigh Ann Robinson both retiring this off-season and off-season acquisition Sydney Leroux out for the season due to pregnancy, it will be interesting to see how the team recovers for 2016. This is also Sarah Hagen's former team so hopefully she will bring the winning formula with her to the Pride next season.
Arguably the most successful team in NWSL, the Portland Thorns play in Providence Park, the same location as the Portland Timbers. The Thorns are the first team in league history to sell out their home stadium and are also responsible for many other season and club attendance records throughout the league. Along with Houston and now Orlando, Portland is the only other club with MLS affiliation. The Thorns are truly a model for how this league can grow, with Portland doing all the right things in terms of merchandising, social media (their own hashtag: #BAONPDX), a strong supporter's group, the Rose City Riveters, and Merritt Paulson's front office willing to spend money to bring the best talent, including Tobin Heath, England international Jodie Taylor, and off-season pick-ups Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett, and Lindsey Horan. Mark Parsons manages the team, having spent six years in multiple coaching roles in England, including time as head coach of Chelsea Ladies Reserve. As with our Orlando City side, any away visit to Portland will prove to be intimidating.
The Reign may not play in the most luxurious of stadiums, it being a high school stadium built in the late 1940s, but what the Reign lack in venue, it certainly makes up for in squad depth and strength. In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Seattle captured the Shield. In 2014, Seattle managed a league record of 16 games unbeaten--most likely on the strength of household names Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo. The league and team top goal scorer for 2015 was Kim Little, an England international who is currently on loan with Australian side Melbourne City. The Reign's coach is former England national player Laura Harvey, NWSL Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2015. She previously coached Arsenal LFC and has served as assistant coach at the junior level for England's national squads. A strong foundation for success, the Reign continue to grow in squad depth, with four players named to the 2015 NWSL Best XI. 2016 is going to be a challenging year for the Reign, as Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL on USWNT duty in December during the victory tour.
Along with the Breakers and Red Stars, Sky Blue is one of the old guard from WPS days gone by. Playing on the Rutgers University campus field in New Jersey, the team finished second from the bottom, ahead of Boston and behind the Flash. Uniquely, Sky Blue is part of Sky Blue Soccer, an organization which sources its own development program and promotes players from within. Sky Blue recently promoted its assistant coach, Christy Holly to the head job, after former head coach Jim Gabarra departed in a mutual release with the club at the start of the off-season to head back to his home turf with the Washington Spirit. Despite problems off the field, Sky Blue boasts some talent on its team with Defender Christie Rampone and 2015 NCAA MAC Hermann Trophy winner and 2016 draft second-overall pick Raquel Rodriguez.
The Washington Spirit started out as DC United Women with the W-League, the second-tier professional women's league. It was affiliated with DC United but was operated independently of the MLS club. In order to join the NWSL in 2013, the team re-branded itself as the Spirit. Even with 2015 Golden Boot winner, Crystal Dunn, the Spirit have previously been mired in the middle of the table with a fourth place finish in both 2014 and 2015 after advancing into playoff contention and falling both years. Average attendance has grown year after year, with 4,087 coming out to see the Spirit play in its home stadium at the Maryland Soccer Plex, located about 30 miles outside of D.C. The current squad boasts some well-known players such as Ali Kreiger and Canadian international Diana Matheson. The Spirit Squadron are the supporter's group.
The Flash play in Rochester, New York in Sahlen's Stadium, the same location as USL men's side Rochester Rhinos, although as fun trivia, the team is based out of Elma, a Buffalo suburb. The team was originally named the Buffalo Flash, starting back in 2009 but with the move from USL's W-League into WPS, it changed the name to Western New York Flash. Kiwi Manager Aaran Lines, who had been with the team since its inception, stepped down in January and the club is currently without a coach. The team has a tremendous history of fielding strong talent and then selling it onwards. The first round pick in the WPS 2011 draft was Alex Morgan, having also signed WPS MVP and Golden Boot winner Brazilian national Marta, who has scored 92 goals in 92 appearances for her country. The Flash has had a remarkable list of strong players, including past players Carli Lloyd, Christine Sinclair, Ali Riley and recent retiree Abby Wambach, who is the all-team leading international goal scorer. With a young roster with many rookie pickups and no coach, keep an eye on this team whose dynamic is always changing.
Now that you are caught up, look forward to more in depth analysis and coverage as we march toward an exciting 2016 NWSL season. Stay tuned to The Mane Land throughout the season, and be sure to check out our preview of the Pride's opening few games!