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The Lowdown: The 2015 NWSL schedule conundrum

Next summer's World Cup could be the biggest and best yet, but it will mess with the NWSL schedule.

The World Cup is over for the American men, which means some of the focus can switch to the women, who play next summer in Canada. Yes the U.S. has to qualify, and I never take anything for granted when it comes to sports results. But it really will take something cataclysmic to keep the U.S. out of Canada next summer.

So going on the assumption of qualification, the burning question around NWSL is about how the league will handle scheduling during the sport’s global championship. There are several available options, none of which are particularly appealing. Complicating the issue further is the direct tie-in between NWSL and the World Cup. The Women’s World Cup has real traction in the broader sports world, something NWSL does not but aspires to. How well the league takes advantage of the World Cup could be crucial to long-term survival.

Looking back, the 2003 World Cup was held in September after WUSA season ended. Originally slated for China, the tournament was moved to the United States due to an outbreak of SARS in China. But WUSA was unable to capitalize. It ceased operations six days before the opening of the Cup.

There was no pro league during the 2007 World Cup—in China—but there certainly was in 2011 when the event went to Germany. WPS, in its third season, took a short break during the group stage, and eventually returned to heightened popularity and raucous crowds when World Cup stars Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe made appearances. We will never know if there was any true, sustained World Cup bounce out there. By 2011, WPS was so fragile and pitifully run that its demise was inevitable. It survived through the 2012 draft before cancelling that season and eventually folding before the start of a fourth season.

By most accounts NWSL will enter its third season in better shape than its two predecessors. But handling the World Cup will still be of vital importance. So what are they to do. Here is a look at some of the options for the 2015 NWSL schedule:

Play through: This might turn out to be the only viable option although no one wants it to happen like this. Major League Soccer just took a two-week hiatus for the start of the Men’s World Cup but was able to return with most of its teams fully intact. What little marketing NWSL does is heavily tilted towards the U.S. national team players. Every team would be down significant players for, assuming the U.S. makes a deep run, at least three weeks. And that time frame does not account for a lead-time camp. You can argue that playing through would shine a light on NWSL matches for soccer-crazed fans looking for more during the World Cup, but a counter argument is that steering potential new fans to a league using watered-down rosters is a recipe for disaster. Also, with the World Cup being in Canada it’s a boon for fans in terms of time differences, but it would not leave many available time slots for league matches.

So why isn’t playing through off the table you ask? Clearly to take a break would require the schedule being reduced or the calendar being expanded. This season’s breakneck pace is barely sustainable. So here are the options available should the league decide to take some sort of World Cup break:

Extend the season into late September or early October: On paper this makes the most sense. In reality there are multiple road blocks, and big ones. WPS did this in 2010 and it was met with disdain from players, who were unable to take fall coaching jobs. The schedule was returned to its August end date in 2011 even with the short World Cup break. Other issues involve venues that host fall college sports like Yurcak Field and Harvard Stadium. Last year when Sky Blue nearly hosted a playoff match they were going to have to find another venue, and the Breakers were reduced to playing on a side field when Harvard Stadium was unavailable for their 2010 playoff match. Enough NWSL teams already struggle for venues so scrambling for fall alternatives would be less than ideal.

Start the season earlier: MLS does it so why not NWSL, right? It is certainly not out of line to play soccer in March, even in colder climates, but there are multiple reasons it would not work as well for NWSL as MLS. One is that MLS has finally found a foothold where most of its teams have sizable fanbases that can be counted on to show up even when weather conditions are less than perfect. NWSL clubs are still fighting that fight. Putting on games in March when the temperature is low and the wind is biting is an invitation for poor attendance. (MLS attendance tends to rise with the temperature but has a much higher baseline.) Starting in March would also require teams to open training camps in February and that might not be so easy for Northeast teams with limited travel dollars. There is also the matter of loan and transfer agreements that could get sticky with a March start date. Playing Match matches sans important players would be no better than doing it during the World Cup.

Shorten the season: I’m not a fan of leagues that constantly mess around with the number of games played or the playoff formats. But this one might actually be my favorite. Let’s say the league keeps nine teams (it is tough to imagine anyone wanting to sign up in a World Cup year.) That would allow for a 16-match schedule using the globally traditional double round-robin format. And there is probably enough time to have each team play once before the World Cup and once after. That would mean only eight home matches which should theoretically boost walk-up attendance for every match, which could in turn create better in-stadium atmospheres. No one thinks 16 matches is enough, but a league like NWSL sometimes needs to circle through some less than perfect setups in order to get where they want to go (again, see MLS.) Ideally this option would be coupled with pushing the championship match back by one week, but ultimately it is the current front-runner for me.

Do you have other ideas? Tweet me @thedanlauletta

Week 12 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 12:

— Player of the Week Carli Lloyd was outstanding in the Flash’s win over the Breakers on Friday. The Flash are still struggling and still without Abby Wambach and Lloyd more or less willed them to victory over a pesky Breakers side that is clearly still playing hard.

— Hope Solo was dressed for the Reign on the weekend but backed up Haley Kopmeyer. Coach Laura Harvey said the reason for Solo being on the bench was not relevant. I disagree. When the best keeper in the world sits, it’s news. But the Reign have been bungling the PR end of the Solo story since she was arrested on domestic violence charges. Anyway, Kopmeyer is 2-0-1 with just a single goal allowed in three matches so it looks like we have a positive answer to the question about the Reign’s goalkeeping depth.

— The Spirit goal in Houston was beautiful. From Lori Lindsey’s one-touch start to the counter attack to Lisa De Vanna’s patience on the ball, and closing with Jody Taylor’s soft but well placed shot over Erin McCleod, it was beauty all around.

Free Kicks

— Does FC Kansas City have a right to think it’s the best team in NWSL? The head-to-head against the Reign (0-1-1) says no, but after a slow start, this year’s team just might end up eclipsing last year’s. And maybe they’re set to peak at the right time after fading a bit late last season.

— Paul Riley relished the opportunity to coach in soccer-crazed Portland. And now many of those soccer crazies are calling for his head. That’s probably a bit much, but clearly the Thorns are currently playing at a level well beneath the sum of their parts. The good news is they have plenty of talented parts and several weeks to get it figured out. And as last year’s team showed, all that’s needed to win the title is to make the playoffs and play well for two weeks.

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