If we lived in a fair and just world, ESPN pundits would be spending hours next week arguing behind a chyron pondering “IS TIERNA DAVIDSON ELITE?” in all caps. But it is not a fair and just world, so instead, you're stuck with us, and this wordy preview for the upcoming National Women’s Soccer League season, which starts this weekend.
It's a strange and magical and deeply frustrating time to be an NWSL fan. The World Cup this summer will bring joyous women's soccer supporters from all over the world together and invite new fans to the party. The league is home to powerhouse international talent, from Samantha Kerr to Marta to Christine Sinclair. Supporters are building and sustaining growing, active communities around their clubs. But pitfalls like the loss of the TV broadcast and two years without a league commissioner muddy the confidence fans have in the future of the league.
The NWSL season kicks off this Saturday as the defending champions North Carolina Courage face the Chicago Red Stars at home and the Washington Spirit take on Sky Blue FC, both at 7:00 PM Eastern. Before it does, a few questions we have about the exciting season ahead.
No TV deal, no problem?
Lifetime, the channel best known for dramatic, ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movies about torrid revenge fantasies and teen pregnancy, also has served as the television broadcast partner for the NWSL since 2017. Back in February, sadly, the NWSL announced the mutual breakup of this partnership, returning the equity stake A&E had in the league back to the NWSL.
Supporters will still be able to watch their favorite teams via Yahoo! Sports, whose app is available on smart devices like AppleTV and Roku, as well as most mobile devices. Although the mobile capability is nice, and makes viewing the matches more accessible for folks who may not have a streaming device, being a top-flight professional sports league without a television broadcast deal, especially in a big World Cup year, feels like a step back (TV is important! Just ask Bill Wirtz!).
But the news isn’t all bad for fans seeking quality NWSL coverage from sources other than your friendly Victory Press NWSL correspondent. More and more sports websites are investing in women’s soccer, and NWSL coverage, specifically: SB Nation recently launched AllForXI, a WoSo-focused site, and NWSL media alumna Megan Linehan has joined The Athletic to cover women’s soccer. It’s not TV, but the more outlets investing in league coverage and bringing the conversation to more supporters, the better.
Can the league and its supporters sustain the World Cup bump?
Festooned with flags and scarves and face paint, tens of thousands of soccer supporters will descend on France this summer for the World Cup. And on the heels of the joy and elation of the World Cup, so will we, supporters and followers of the NWSL, remind our friends who only tune into women's soccer once every four years that there’s a whole season of soccer to follow with all their favorite players! (If only they could watch it on TV!)
Will last-minute big changes part the clouds for Sky Blue FC?
Imagine, for a second, that you're a player like Julia Ashley. You give everything to the game, to the demand of a Division I collegiate soccer program. You make a name for yourself on the college level, enough to where you're one of the most sought-after draft picks in professional soccer in your home country. You're called up to the national team's U23 squad. Your hometown club, just a few dozen miles from where you grew up, wants you to wear their badge, selects you in the first round.
You take all this knowledge in, and your response is, "Thank u, next."
Last season was a mess (literally and figuratively) for Sky Blue — an abysmal record, reports of poor facility conditions — and up until this week, it was looking like more of the same. Their top two draft picks opted to play internationally instead. Madison Tiernan is likely out for the season with an ACL injury. Sky Blue's marquee player and co-leading goalscorer, Carli Lloyd, will be out for a bulk of this summer on World Cup duty.
The remaining storm clouds obscuring Sky Blue are not without silver linings. Last season's strongest upstart standouts, Savannah McCaskill and NWSL Rookie of the Year Imani Dorsey, are staying on and coming back stronger. General Manager Tony Novo was fired on Wednesday and will be replaced by Alyse LaHue, former GM of the Chicago Red Stars. Members of the Cloud 9 supporters group, who championed the #FreeSkyBlue campaign and demanded Novo's ouster, have responded with some optimism.
It's a dramatic, albeit necessary, change less than a week before the season starts, but one that seems to be injecting new energy around the club, and we'll know very soon how that translates into on-pitch performances. LaHue and her team will have a lot of work ahead to repair Sky Blue's bruised reputation after last season, attract and retain talent and regain the confidence of supporters, and we'll have a lot of work ahead to recap the state of the club without using pithy weather puns.
What does Amanda Duffy's shiny new title really mean?
Following the departure of Jeff Plush in 2017, the National Women's Soccer League spent nearly two years without a commissioner, with Amanda Duffy serving in a sort of interim role. Duffy earned praise for her work with the league as Director of Operations, including helping broker the A&E deal, and was finally named league President in January.
But the deal she was praised for is gone, the league's Vice President of Sales announced her departure days before the season starts and leadership has been rather quiet since the A&E announcement. Duffy was also notably criticized for the lack of diversity among new coaching and front office hires in the league. Especially given the importance of a World Cup year for engaging and broadening the audience, supporters will be looking to Duffy to move beyond a caretaking role and propose changes to promote the sustainability and health of the league.
Can the Courage do it again?
By the close of the 2018 season, the North Carolina Courage were looking like American WoSo's version of The Invincibles. Although the Utah Royals played spoiler there, the Courage still breezed to a title and a second consecutive NWSL Shield and appearance in the NWSL Championship in only their second season in the league.
Back-to-back titles are never easy, especially with key players like Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, and new keeper Stephanie Labbé out for a chunk of the season due to the World Cup. But you know who will still be around? Kiwi fortress and 2018 NWSL Defender of the Year Abby Erceg, 2018 league assist leader Jessica McDonald, and Lynn Williams, who finished last season with an impressive 14 goals, only two behind Golden Boot winner Samantha Kerr.
And preseason is never the best barometer, but the Courage did go undefeated in theirs, including a 4-0 routing of Orlando that saw goals from McDonald and Williams.
And one bonus question: Will these world-class athletes ever be compensated to the extent they deserve?
Probably not, but we can dream!
Okay, one more bonus question: What’s the over-under on Sam Kerr goal celebration backflips?
Tweet us at @thevictorypress with your estimate and other NWSL season predictions! We look forward to sharing more stories, analysis and match weekend coverage with you throughout the season.