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The Lowdown: A look ahead at NWSL in 2015

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NWSL fans, get ready to see and hear some version of this phrase for the entirety of 2015: pivotal third season. It might be rephrased as crucial, important, make-or-break, vital, or a variety of other adjectives. The reason, of course, is that WUSA and WPS both imploded following their third seasons. If the NWSL cannot survive any longer than that on shoestring budgets aided by salary and administration help from U.S. Soccer, it will be a devastating blow to the chances of a women’s league gaining traction any time in the near or even midterm future.

By most accounts NWSL is ahead of where its forerunners were when they turned the calendar to the year of their third seasons. WUSA owners were bleeding money, feuding with the players and very nearly pulled the plug just before opening day in 2003 before playing one more season. WPS was in utter disarray after losing two teams in 2010—the attendance-leading L.A. Sol, and then Saint Louis Athletica in the middle of the season—and foregoing due diligence regarding the late Dan Borislow before allowing him to purchase the Freedom. The 2011 season was a farce. There was no 2012 season.

There are no such issues immediately apparent in NWSL. A few teams are lagging at the gate and there remains an issue of trying to stay relevant during the long, often quiet offseason. But ownership groups remain committed and others are waiting in the wings trying to decide when or if to throw their hats in the ring. So long as that goes and U.S. Soccer continues to subsidize the top American players, NWSL figures to survive, possibly even thrive.

As we look forward to this month’s draft and a summer schedule tied in with the World Cup, here are six story lines to look at in 2015:

Plush for greater heights? On Tuesday, Jeff Plush was named commissioner of NWSL. He effectively takes over for Cheryl Bailey, but is the first person to hold his title. The responsibility will now fall on Plush to help guide the nascent league through what will be some intriguing years. The resume suggests Plush might be just the person for the job. In soccer circles he is best known as the former managing director of the Colorado Rapids and he was instrumental in getting Dick’s Sporting Goods Park built on time and within budget. He also worked with Rapids owner Stan Kroenke on various business projects and was most recently managing partner of Helium Sports Group, which provided clients with “practical and strategic advice to maximize revenue generating opportunities, active partnerships, develop and extend strong brands, and realize the value of media rights across television, digital, and in-venue platforms.” If Plush, who will work out of Chicago, can help the NWSL move forward in even half those areas he is likely to leave the league in a better place than he is finding it.

World Cup bounce? This summer’s World Cup will be the fourth since the introduction of pro women’s soccer in the United States, and we have yet to get a firm answer as to how the globally recognized event will impact said league. WUSA folded the week of the opening matches in 2003 and WPS was too far gone to benefit from the bounce created in 2011. (There was no league operating in 2007.) One team official told The Lowdown that the World Cup can only bring increased exposure plus unprecedented access to get close to the stars of the game once they return to their club teams. I agree. There will be a positive response from the World Cup, which will be played at times friendly for North American audiences (although the move from ESPN to FOX should drain some casual viewers). The trick will be not getting swallowed up by the event as it approaches and happens, and then for the teams to take advantage of the heightened awareness which will not last forever. An expedited availability of season ticket packages for 2016 couldn’t hurt.

Canada and Mexico? Getting Canada’s and Mexico’s federations to pay players was considered a stroke of genius from Sunil Gulati in the forming of NWSL. Two years later the participation of those federations is looking shaky. In Mexico’s case, part of the problem has been that outside a select few players, teams have not been keen on giving the subsidized players many minutes. A bigger loss would be Canada, who has more than enough players to make positive impacts around the league and offset a reasonable amount of salary. At some point the endgame for the clubs has to be gaining financial independence from U.S. Soccer so it’s not going to be the end of the world if Canada and/or Mexico drop out. But if the respective federations don’t think their players were better for having played in the NWSL, it could become more difficult to recruit top internationals from elsewhere.

Helping U.S. Soccer? Shannon Boxx is back in national team camp this month and it is easy to forget that Boxx was off the international radar until having a breakout 2003 season for the New York Power (coached, ironically enough, by Tom Sermanni.) Becky Sauerbrunn, probably the best American central defender today, made a name for herself playing for the Freedom in WPS. But what is the best example of NWSL having a positive influence on the USWNT? Of the 29 players in camp right now you can make the case for Allie Long having used the league as a springboard to get there. Lori Chalupny, a mainstay on the team before concussion issues kept her away for five years, likely would not be back without NWSL. And the same could be said about Amy Rodriguez, who was falling out of favor and then got pregnant before a bounce-back season in 2014. Since anyone not in camp now is pretty much out of the mix for the World Cup, what happens after that? Will new players come in for the Olympics? Or will Jill Ellis wait until the end of 2016 to start turning things over? And just when will established league pros like Becky Edwards, Jen Buczkowski, Elli Reed, Lauren Barnes, and Christine Nairn get even a chance to make an impression?

Who will break through? The World Cup will gut teams of many key players for some or all of the season. Many won’t be happy to hear that, but for others it represents opportunity. So which players will break though? Will Tori Huster and Julie King continue to improve and take their places among the league’s best central defenders? Will Maya Hayes continue to improve and be the scoring threat Sky Blue thought she would be when they drafted her? Can Jen Hoy extend her form from last May across an entire season? Will Brittany Bock return healthy and help anchor the Dash midfield? And which backup goalkeepers will thrive in the absence of their more accomplished teammates?

How will the new schedule be received? This season will consist of less games (20, down from 24) over more time. That can only be a good thing after the absurdity of 2014, when clubs played matches at a pace that bordered on inhumane. On the flipside, teams will have to deal with a World Cup break, potential conflicts with knockout matches, and the extension of the season into September. The only other time that happened in the history of all three leagues was 2010 and the players nearly revolted because it made taking coaching jobs at high schools and colleges almost impossible. And it doesn’t figure to be a one-off with the Olympics posing a similar obstacle in 2016. September also reverts back into the school year, which has been a tough time for women’s soccer teams to draw.  Chalk it up as another issue for the new commissioner to work on.

Free Kicks

— According to a Facebook interview conducted by Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, the club has recently completed a trade that will see them lose the No. 25 and 34 picks in next week’s draft. It will leave the 2013 champs without a single pick on draft day. Paulson also said that the Thorns are “trying to ensure [Veronica Boquete] returns at least for the second half of the year.”

— An Atlanta based group calling itself the Atlanta Vibe is exploring the viability of an NWSL franchise. A short survey, geared to Atlanta residents, is available at their site.

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