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Expansion vs. Relocation: NWSL’s Conundrum

As new NWSL teams are expected in the near future, whether they will be expansion or relocation teams is a question.

Carlos Romero, The Mane Land

Tonight, the Orlando Pride will take on the North Carolina Courage, who have been far and away the best team in the NWSL this season. Two of the league’s five teams that are part of a club with both men’s and women’s teams, the two sides’ experiences have shown the difference between starting a team from scratch and acquiring a relocated team.

Of the five teams that are part of a club that also fields an MLS or USL team, only the Portland Thorns formed with the start of the NWSL and have remained in the same city. The Pride and Houston Dash formed as entirely new teams, while the Courage are the relocated Western New York Flash and the Utah Royals are essentially the relocated FC Kansas City.

While teams relocating is never good for any league or community, there are noticeable advantages to doing so. North Carolina FC owner Stephen Malik purchased the financially troubled Flash in 2017, following the Rochester-based team winning the league championship. The result was an NWSL Shield during the team’s first year in North Carolina and the team is a heavy favorite to win the double this season.

Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen technically didn’t purchase the struggling FC Kansas City and move it to Utah, but the club did inherit Kansas City’s roster. So, while the Royals are officially a new team, they are more or less a relocated side.

In 2014, the Houston Dynamo became the second team to launch an NWSL side when the Dash came into existence. Two years later, Orlando City fulfilled Phil Rawlins’ long-held dream of adding a women’s team.

Owning an MLS/USL and NWSL team is a complicated endeavor, as you are managing two rosters, sometimes three, which includes the full construction of a roster if it’s a team’s inaugural season. Often using expansion drafts and trades to compile a roster means that usually expansion sides are not very competitive, often for a while. If a club is able to acquire a competitive team through relocation, it has a much greater chance of winning from the outset.

The reason why any of this matters is that MLS-owned NWSL teams continue to flourish while independently-owned teams continue to struggle. According to reports, there are multiple MLS teams interested in joining the league, which could mean either expansion or relocation. We could potentially see teams like Sky Blue FC or the dormant Boston Breakers acquired by MLS owners and moved to those cities, as doing so would ease the transition of owning an additional team.

It appears as though any relocation would be the current NWSL team folding and the new team acting as an expansion side, while inheriting the roster of the “dissolved” team. This is what happened in MLS’ lone relocation when the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston, as well as when FC Kansas City moved to Utah. It would also allow the league to claim that it is not moving teams out of cities, even though that’s exactly what would be happening.

Given the on-field success of the Courage and Royals following relocation and the relative struggles of teams like the Pride and the Dash, the purchasing and relocation of NWSL teams could be seen in the future. Only time will tell if that actually happens but tonight’s match-up brings us a pair of teams with a similar setup that have ended up that way in two very different ways.