With its historic fourth season of play in the rear-view mirror, the excitement building around the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) upcoming season is unprecedented. The growth of the league has been amazing to watch as more sponsors are coming to the league, a new national TV deal is in place, and where in the past contraction would be the talk of the off-season, the NWSL is looking to expand into new markets, further implanting its brand on the sporting landscape of the United States.
The NWSL would be remiss in not acknowledging the skyrocketing popularity of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the overall growth of international competition as a catalyst for the league’s ability to surpass its predecessors.
However, while it is exciting to see the growth and the opportunities increase, it is important to note that the benefits of the international influence also present some new challenges to the NWSL. The young league’s challenge is to continually balance trying to capitalize on the immediate opportunities for financial benefits without sacrificing the future sustainability of the NWSL. Something that Major League Soccer (MLS) fans can attest to is the difficulty of maintaining, and it’s a task that often leaves the clubs within the league facing difficult off-season decisions.
Our beloved Orlando Pride is no exception.
The loss of Kaylyn Kyle to the somewhat confusing and convoluted roster rules is one such example. International roster spots and national team subsidized salaries are not things typically at the forefront of fans’ and supporters’ minds until it costs a favorite player a roster spot.
Kyle, a Canadian international, was one of the first three players signed by the Pride ahead of their inaugural season and seemed to establish herself right at the center of Orlando’s heart with her dedication to the club and community. So, when the Canadian National Team decided not to subsidize her salary for the upcoming season, the Pride front office was faced with a difficult decision.
Kyle needed to find a new home and club for which to play. The supporters of the Pride needed to find a way to deal with the frustrations of losing a favorite, while also facing the reality of not having another favorite — and another original signee — to start the season.
Also, resulting from the surging popularity of the USWNT and the international stage on which the team plays, Pride forward Alex Morgan seized an opportunity to test herself overseas with Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon for short) of the French Division 1 Feminine.
While, being rational, it is difficult to fault Morgan for wanting to take the opportunity in front of her, the move also serves as a stern reminder the NWSL has a long way to go in achieving its desired status as the premier league for women’s soccer.
However, the league is moving in the right direction. While it is true that the immediate reaction to the league’s growing pains may seem negative to Pride fans as they have to start the year without two of the three original members of the club, Morgan will return in June and there have been some pleasant changes to the club as a result of the fluctuating landscape of the sport.
The Pride added USWNT veteran defender Ali Krieger this off-season, and keeper Ashlyn Harris not only returns as the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year, but also with increased international experience and the potential to become the new number one option on the USWNT.
The increased exposure, provided by both athletes on the international stage, certainly bodes well for increased recognition on the club level too, as those that tune in for the upcoming friendlies will shortly be able to see them on the national stage, as the NWSL launches soon.
Operating a young club in a burgeoning league is no easy task to begin with, and while the additional difficulties of the conflicting demands and needs of players and international commitments often add stress to the job, the Orlando Pride have shown experience beyond their years in managing this off-season.
The loss of Kyle stings, and Morgan will surely be missed in April and May, but despite the difficult roster decisions, the front office has put together a solid squad, and the Pride seem more seasoned and prepared for the upcoming season than should be expected of a second year club.