PHILADELPHIA – There is a stark realization among National Women’s Soccer League coaches: they can’t compete with European clubs financially for players.
Five of the league’s nine coaches hosted a roundtable discussion on Thursday to discuss how their goals of improving the league ahead of Friday’s 2014 NWSL College Draft, and the message was clear that Europe can pay players more. The prestige of the UEFA Women’s Champions League – as noted by several U.S. national team players this NWSL offseason – is also an advantage that Europe holds over the top flight in the United States.
“We can’t compete financially with the European teams and we can’t compete with the Champions League,” Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra said.
NWSL salaries ranged from $6,000-$30,000 in 2013, with most players — including allocated players for Canada and Mexico — falling in the middle of that range, below $20,000 for the season.
Seattle Reign FC coach and general manager Laura Harvey, who grew up in England and built her resume at Arsenal Ladies, said that the bump in pay from European clubs was a conscious decision made by European leagues and clubs several years ago, when the now defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) began to attract several top level international players Stateside.
Harvey noted that the additional revenue brought in by teams for advancing in the Champions League helps, in part, to fund player salaries.
And the very fact that it’s the Champions League, which just like in the men’s game is considered the highest level club knockout competition, is enough to attract several players. It’s why Christen Press is staying with Swedish club Tyresö until the Champions League season is over. Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg will do the same, before all three come home to play in the NWSL.
But Harvey’s argument, along with that of several coaches and NWSL players, is that the league is more competitive — and they admit maybe not yet as high quality, but top-to-bottom competitive — than any other in the world. Three teams finished on 38 pts. in the inaugural season. Logistically, the NWSL also faces challenges that could deter top international talent from flocking to the States or even keep U.S. players from staying close to home.
The league’s five-month season is the shortest of any of the world’s major leagues, and it is positioned such that preseason begins in March, when national team players are away at the Algarve Cup and the Cyprus Cup.“The biggest problem for me is not having our league synchronized with the FIFA calendar,” Gabarra said.
Harvey bluntly noted that “24 games in five months is crazy,” but extending the season to pay players for 10 months is not currently economically viable, Gabarra noted. The 2014 season, like 2013, will run from early April through the last week of August.
Harvey also seconded her colleague’s thoughts on the loss of national team players during key stretches of the season.
“In any league I’ve worked in before, when the national team players are playing, your league is not,” said Harvey, who won four league titles and two FA Cups as manager of Arsenal Ladies from 2008-12.
Prestige, however, also works in the favor of the NWSL and the United States. Harvey noted that players still want the best, and the U.S. has historically been known as the world’s best team. Some players see that as an opportunity to grow, like an international – Kim Little, by process of elimination – who took a “major pay cut” to be a part of Reign FC this year.
Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said the NWSL had too much emphasis on athleticism in 2013, and the challenge in 2014 will be figuring out “how to slow the game down” to highlight more technical abilities. That should also help attract European players, he said.
All of these issues are compounded by the 2015 World Cup in Canada, which will fall smack in the middle of the NWSL season in June and July. Several federations have hinted toward wanting their players close to home or even in residency ahead of the competition, and the influx of U.S. national team players back home to the NWSL has already begun.
How teams, players and leagues manage that elephant in the room remains to be seen, but discussions have already begun regarding the schedule and the 2014 season.
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