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U.S. Soccer Needs to Better Balance its Responsibilities to the Women’s Game

Having a stake in the NWSL means U.S. Soccer needs to find a better way to balance the national team and the league.

Mexico v United States Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The NWSL is the most successful women’s professional soccer league to date in the U.S. That’s not subjective, it’s a fact. The success can be largely attributed to its tenure as the league is in its sixth year while no other league has even hit the five-year mark. One of the reasons the league has been able to sustain itself, has been because of the investment that the U.S. Soccer Federation has put into the league.

The league covers the expenses of the NWSL office, as well as national team players. This was a key component in the recent women’s CBA negotiations as national team players on the women’s side receive a full year salary from the USSF. This is their “NWSL salary,” but that money neither counts against the team in cap or actual money. When you hear your team has an allocated national team player, that cost is back on the USSF, not the club.

This means the USSF has a strong foothold in the backing of the NWSL. In turn, it has a responsibility to the league to help grow financially and in exposure so that one day — hopefully — the USSF backing is no longer needed. But right now, there’s as much onus on the federation as there is on the owners because a failed league with the league’s backing would be a death sentence. Not to mention, those funds are going to be needed elsewhere at some point.

Now, don’t forget though that the federation still has its own responsibility — depending on your standpoint — and that’s the United States Women’s National Team. The USWNT is what brings in the money. Tournament winnings, retail sales, sponsorships, etc., are all brought in via the USWNT and its matches. It needs to protect that product with the utmost care and it needs to make sure the product is a viable one that keeps the fans interested.

It’s an interesting time for the perception of U.S. Soccer. With the men not making the World Cup, the women — who have been infinitely more successful — have a bigger burden to carry the national team torch. Right now, what the federation doesn't need is the women’s team losing matches just before important World Cup qualifiers this year.

So here lies the problem: at what point does the national team outweigh the NWSL? Coming up June 7 and 12, the USWNT will play two friendlies against China in Utah and Cleveland. But the USWNT players will be called in to camp on June 1, forcing those players to miss club matches the weekend of June 2-3.

So now you have 20-25 players most likely pulled out of the NWSL for matches that, as I wrote a while ago, could be the difference in making the playoffs or not in a tough season. There are nine teams in the NWSL. Take away the top two to four players on each team and ask yourself if that sounds like the best way to get people to the stadium, or to tune into go90 or Lifetime to watch a match.

Take the North Carolina Courage, for example. It could lose as many as seven players: Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, Jessica McDonald, and Lynn Williams have all been a part of camps recently. The first five are all likely going to next month’s camp. So if your’e fans of the Courage hoping to see any of these players, sorry.

If you’re the USSF, you have to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do we need to pull away NWSL stars for a camp designed to prepare for friendlies?
  • Is it absolutely necessary when everyone is in full stride in their seasons to bring them together this early?
  • Could Jill Ellis not game plan June 4-6 effectively for matches that essentially mean very little?

There is no reason the NWSL should be suffering for the cost of a friendly. If this is World Cup qualifying or even the Tournament of Nations late in July, then there’s some understanding to be had. But pulling stars that drive tickets and jersey sales away is irresponsible in this instance. You don’t get a lot of second chances with fans and it only takes a few moves to peeve a fan into not supporting something. This is one of the things.

My request to the USSF for comment on this situation did not receive a response. If I could step into their shoes for a second, I would argue the success of the national team breeds more fandom for the sport and therefore creates a trickle-down effect for the NWSL. The USSF wouldn’t be wrong. I can't argue that.

What I can argue is the USSF being a bit more responsible to the league it is heavily invested in. Would the NBA ever take its 20 best players away for an entire weekend in the middle of the season? No. It wouldn’t necessarily be suicide for a league that is already on firm financial ground, but it would hurt. No owner in their right mind would want Lebron James or Kevin Durant not playing in a game because USA Basketball wanted to play a meaningless friendly against another country. And the NWSL isn’t on nearly as solid ground financially.

This is where the USSF needs to efficiently manage the situation and understand it has a responsibility to the women's game on both fronts. If you can avoid this situation, which I certainly imagine it can, why not avoid it? If this is Ellis’ call, then someone from the federation should be stepping in to find a compromise for the situation. Again, we’re talking friendlies mid-season, not a major competition. No one needs to find their form or fitness. The team was just together six weeks ago for the SheBelieves Cup.

In a traditional sense, soccer clubs — when not a FIFA weekend — have the right to refuse players going on national team calls. But with the dynamic of the NWSL and the USSF, this probably doesn't exist. If I’m an owner of a team that already struggles to get people to the gate, I’m furious. And if you’re Orlando or Seattle looking at a match-up that could ultimately impact the playoff picture when you’re going to be missing your stars, you’re less than thrilled.

I’ll be interested to see who is called into camp. Will Ellis try not to pull too many from one team? Will the USSF still allow some called upon players to stay at home, like Alex Morgan? U.S Soccer had a chance to put the league first, something it doesn't have to do often, and chose not to for whatever reasons are known to only them. Now we're on tap for an unnecessarily below-top-standard NWSL weekend and everyone loses.