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The Lowdown: NWSL rings in 2017

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush. (Photo Courtesy NWSL)
NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush. (Photo Courtesy NWSL)

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush. (Photo Courtesy NWSL)

The NWSL is about to embark on a fifth season and with the draft a little more than a week away, you can expect a flurry of news tidbits to start trickling out. Until then, here is a look at some of the storylines to follow around the league as the sun rises on 2017.

Will there be a mass exodus to Europe and elsewhere?

Alex Morgan might be a bigger name than Crystal Dunn, but the latter’s move to England was a much bigger blow to NWSL than Morgan’s. And they are not alone. On the day Dunn’s move to Chelsea Ladies was announced, Paris Saint-Germain officially introduced Canadian wunderkind Ashley Lawrence. Another Canadian, Kadeisha Buchanan appears headed to Lyon. Several people close to the league also believe Savannah Jordan will wind up somewhere other than NWSL. That is three 1st round picks potentially taking themselves out of the mix, plus two major stars heading overseas.

Could there be more? Time will tell. But there are a few reasons that Dunn’s departure is more jarring than Morgan’s. One is that Morgan still has designs on returning to Orlando after Lyon’s season finishes—no later than June 1. Dunn, on the other hand, told the Washington Post she will not be in NWSL this season. That is despite her new club, Chelsea, being reduced to friendlies and the FA Cup until the new fall-spring calendar gets the league rebooted. That means she could have played the season for the Spirit before moving to Chelsea for a run at the 2018 FAWSL title and possibly the Champions League.

Instead she hightailed it out of Washington right behind Ali Krieger, Christine Nairn and others.

Dunn is quoted in the release by Chelsea Ladies: “I have only been to London once before but there is something that grabbed me about Chelsea. The whole family culture – the unity, the morale – is making it feel just like home.”

That may or may not be an indirect dig at the Spirit, but every indication is that whatever the 2017 plan turned out to be, Dunn was never going back to play in Washington. None of Tuesday’s developments did anything to alter that idea.

I’m not ready to be alarmed just yet. If more players like Amandine Henry come, it will more than help offset the loss of some of the best U.S. players in NWSL. And this could very well be a perfect storm offseason to be offset in a few years by a mass arrival of quality players. Besides, NWSL needs to figure out how to succeed without leaning on any particular star or star system. Sure, having Morgan and Dunn in the league helps drive exposure and ticket sales, but the creation of dedicated fan bases who will stick around no matter the personnel is what will allow the league to achieve real credibility and sustainability.

About that pesky CBA

The collective bargaining agreement is expired, which essentially means nothing because neither side has started the clock on opting out and/or enacting a work stoppage. That means the uneasiness remains. The USWNT Players Association announcement that they were changing lead counsel with just a few days left in the agreement was an ominous sign that whatever meetings took place in December did not lead to much progress.

Whenever a new agreement does get hammered out, it will certainly include NWSL. The USWNT PA release about (lawyer) Rich Nichols departing even went so far as to mention the league. That may sound trivial, but the league was formed during the last round of CBA negotiations and no national team player mentioned it on any format until Abby Wambach’s Ballon d’Or acceptance speech nearly two months later.

The general fear is that NWSL currently sits right in the middle of what appears to be a vast chasm separating the players and US Soccer, and that eventually one or either side will use it as negotiating fodder.

NWSL will absolutely survive the new CBA, and eventually will have to break free of its guardianship arrangement with U.S. Soccer. The hope is that its tweaks position the league well for growth as it prepares for its fifth season and beyond.

Will the league itself develop more of a presence?

NWSL recently hired Amanda Duffy to its operations department. In a WoSo rarity, the move was met with almost unanimous praise. Duffy previously ran the W-League and had risen to become president of Louisville FC. The league though, declined to comment on the hiring and does not intend to put out any official announcement. Only the farewell release from Louisville FC alerted the masses to Duffy’s hiring.

So what gives? Could Duffy’s hiring be part of a larger restructuring to be announced down the road? That is certainly possible. But given the league’s track record for silence deference over directness, the autopilot response is to be skeptical. And remember, expanding the league office is usually considered a good thing, and a prominent, popular woman being hired to a position of importance in the league office is worthy of being shouted from the highest mountaintops.

Beyond the coy response to the new hire, the league continues to respond to every crisis by turning off. In other words they issue a bland statement and then go on media lockdown. They have not teased the schedule or home openers, or even when it might be announced. Promises of other good news during the weeks after the NWSL Championship have also been followed by deafening silence. There have not been any comments about CBA talks or assurances that league business will not be impacted by them.

When MLS season starts, try to watch a full weekend of games without seeing or hearing from commissioner Don Garber. NWSL has the opposite scenario. Good luck getting even a sniff of a league executive either on camera or in any effort to keep the flow of news and information heading in the right direction.

What happens on the field?

The offseason is long enough that you can sometimes forget the idea here is to have competitive soccer teams on the field. Things have been somewhat stagnant outside the Spirit trading away or otherwise losing a solid chunk of their near-championship roster. But there are several burning questions leading into the draft. My top four would be…

1) Will the Breakers use the number one pick or trade it? In a draft with so much uncertainty at the top and the first time since 2013 when we are not dead certain who will go first, the Breakers’ decision and the pick will go a long way in shaping the rest of the day.

2) Is the Washington Spirit’s allocation ranking for real? Someone affiliated with the Ali Kriger trade told me then it was “total BS.” Since then the Spirit moved up again to the top spot. Who could they get with the priority? Last year the Thorns sent the No. 3 pick to Boston to move up and grab Mallory Pugh only to have Pugh change her mind and opt for UCLA (and then redshirt her freshman year to play in the U-20 World Cup). Landing a major player here could offset much of the Spirit’s hemorrhaging of players and win back some of their eroding goodwill with the fan base.

3) What direction will the Flash take? The Flash tore their team to bits in the 2014-2015 offseason and remarkably, put five players drafted in 2015 in the starting lineup the day they won the 2016 NWSL Championship. As of the time this article was published, they held the No. 2 and 7 picks next week. Additionally, sources have indicated the deal to sign recently acquired Rosana is a formality and that fellow Brazilian Debinha is also expected to join the club. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, winning the title will alter the mentality. Do they use the picks or move them for either more veteran help or something to cash in down the road? Either way, I would be quite surprised if the Flash don’t announce a trade before the draft.

4) Paging the Portland Thorns: Last offseason it seemed like the Thorns were adding an internationally capped player every week. This time around they have been eerily quiet. Of course, the team they left off with in October was pretty good. So they likely don’t need more than a few tweaks. If there was an area of weakness though, it was team speed, something the Flash exposed in their semifinal victory. As the biggest, strongest club in NWSL, the Thorns move the needle whenever they do something, whatever it is. They have as many detractors as fans. Hoping for some Thorns news in the not-too-distant future.

Extra time

-Here is a question: If the CBA is still viable, then why are Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn suddenly free to go to Europe on what appear to be free transfers? And as posed by Twitter follower @kraxydevil, can Chelsea at any point turn around and loan Dunn back to the NWSL club of her/their choosing?

-My next NWSL personnel question is whether Christie Rampone will play. Not only is it a blessing to have a connection to the 1999 World Cup team still active and another blessing to be able to watch the 41-year old glide around the pitch, her decision will be important to Sky Blue, who can build several parts of their roster off of her presence at center back.

-I’ve heard from too many different people that I do believe there will be some changes to how and where NWSL matches are distributed this season. Stay tuned.

-Look for Tiffany Weimer to end up in Boston.

-There are now more NWSL MVP winners playing in England (2) than in NWSL (1). Dunn and Kim Little will be in FAWSL, while reigning MVP Lynn Williams remains in Western New York. The fourth, Lauren Holiday, is retired.

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