In 2018, the state of American women’s soccer is in an unusual position of stability. The NWSL has survived five seasons, and is entering its sixth in pretty good shape, United Women’s Soccer is growing at a healthy pace, and the WPSL has made a lot of changes to fix some of the biggest problems in recent years. You may have heard about some of that during the podcast we recorded with associate commissioner Matt Homonoff. Contrast this with the chaos we dealt with over the past five or so years, and you’ll see just how remarkable the lack of drama has been.
So, where are we now, and what does 2018 hold for the women’s game in the USA? Whether you’re new to the world of women’s soccer, or just looking to get up to speed with the latest, I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for here.
First things first, let’s talk NWSL. The National Women’s Soccer League, the top division of women’s soccer in America and Canada, is entering its sixth season. This is a new record for professional women’s leagues, as the two previous attempts at professional leagues both folded after their third seasons. The league currently comprises nine teams across the United States — I’ll go into them in more detail later. It’s also the best attended women’s league in the world, and home to a number of full international players.
Three significant things happened over the offseason. Most significantly, the salary rules have changed once again. The total salary cap, excluding American and Canadian international players, has risen to $350,000, with a minimum salary of $15,750 and a maximum of $44,000. It might not seem like much, but compared to just two years ago, when the minimum salary was only $7,200(!), it’s a dramatic improvement and continues the trend set a year ago. It’s not quite at the level where I would like it, but for the players, it’s definitely appreciated.
We also lost two of the 10 teams that contested the previous season. FC Kansas City, the two-time champions, have “folded” in a really unusual way. The team was purchased by a group based in Minneapolis in January 2017, but by the end of the season the team had completely fallen apart. Enter Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen. Rather than a relocation or buyout, a new team was created in the Utah Royals FC, and the existing player contracts were transferred from FCKC to the new team.
The Boston Breakers are another story entirely. The team had been in preparation for the 2018 season, including participating in the NWSL draft, signing players and all, when things abruptly came to a halt. After months of courting new ownership failed, the team folded two months before the season began. Players were distributed to the remaining nine teams in a dispersal draft, and the schedule was restructured to account for the loss of the team.
That then leaves us with the following 9 teams:
- Chicago Red Stars
- Houston Dash (owned by Houston Dynamo)
- North Carolina Courage (owned by North Carolina FC)
- Orlando Pride (owned by Orlando City SC)
- Portland Thorns (owned by Portland Timbers)
- Seattle Reign
- Sky Blue FC
- Utah Royals FC (owned by Real Salt Lake)
- Washington Spirit
Last season was all about the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns, who finished first and second in the regular season and played in the 2017 NWSL Championship game won by Portland. While we can expect both teams to continue to perform well this year, don’t count anyone out. The Courage only won the shield by two points, and only nine points separated third place from seventh. It’s a very, very competitive league and ranks among the world’s best.
It’s also an absolute blast from start to finish. The season began on March 24 and will run through Sept. 9, with each team playing 24 games. The playoffs will begin on Sept. 14 and end with the championship game on Sept. 22. One game per week is broadcast on Lifetime, with the remainder streamed through go90.
Onto the next tier.
The “second tier” of women’s soccer isn’t officially designated by the federation, but is generally agreed to feature two leagues: United Women’s Soccer and the Women’s Premier Soccer League. Compare this to the “fourth tier” of the men’s pyramid, as both are affiliated through USASA.
United Women’s Soccer is the younger of the two, and the youngest league in the pyramid. It was formed in 2015 due to issues teams had with the WPSL and the folding of the USL W-League, and began its first season the following spring. The league currently comprises 22 teams, including a mixture of former W-League and WPSL sides, two MLS-affiliated clubs and one former NWSL team, the Western New York Flash.
The league is classified as pro-am, meaning that some teams have paid players and some do not. And for NCAA eligibility rules, any team with NCAA players is fully amateur. The 22 teams are distributed into three conferences with nine in the East, seven in the Central and six in the West. The season is set to begin on May 8 and end July 15, with each team playing 10 games. Playoffs will occur sometime in July and will be announced as we get closer. 2018 will be the third season for the league and they’re already doing pretty well.
The other second division league is the Women’s Premier Soccer League. This league has been around since 1997 and currently features 108 teams. That makes it the largest single women’s soccer league in the world. It also once spawned a men’s league which has since become the National Premier Soccer League.
The WPSL’s teams are organized into four regions: East, South, West and Central, and are further divided into 17 divisions — four in each of the East, South and Central, and five in the West. Divisions have as few as four teams and as many as nine, meaning that the divisions don’t all play the same number of games. It’s a bit confusing, yes, but the important thing is that every team will play at least six games and the league has a truly national footprint.
They (quite justifiably) brag about their massive footprint which covers 33 states and 38 of the top 39 metro areas, with a club each in Puerto Rico and Canada. The league is also under new management, with the group that runs Oklahoma City FC taking ownership and control of the league last fall. They’ve emphasized stricter standards for every team and a focus on professionalism in the league, with an aim on fixing the issues that have plagued the league in the past (see: UWS, which was founded due to these frustrations). They’re also planning a league-wide streaming solution that will be rolled out at some point in the future.
Anyway, that’s the state of American women’s soccer in a nutshell.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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