There is little doubt that NWSL is in a stronger position heading into its third season than either of its two predecessors, WUSA and WPS. But the league took its first serious body blow last week when Abby Wambach announced her intention to skip the season. How well the fledgling league absorbs the blow will go a long way towards determining its long-term viability.
This is not because any one player can make or break the league, and it is not because Abby Wambach is not entitled to make her own decision. Any league that can be tipped by the absence of one player was never meant for great things to begin with. And Wambach has no obligation to play for the Flash or even in NWSL – especially if U.S. Soccer, which pays her salary to play in the league, gives its blessing.
In the short-term this will barely make a dent in NWSL. Wambach was injured for significant stretches in 2014 and like her national team mates, was never slated to play more than about half of the schedule this season. But let’s ask a few questions:
Will the decision hurt the Flash? It is hard to take Abby Wambach off a team and not expect it to suffer, but in this case her absence might actually accentuate the youth movement in Western New York. Off the field could be a different story. The Flash have not exactly torn it up at the gate in two NWSL seasons, and losing Wambach can only serve to keep fans away—especially when the announcement made national news while daily team and league news is nearly impossible to come by outside inner soccer circles like this one. No player in any of the three women’s professional leagues has been more closely associated with their market than Wambach to Rochester. If you were a Flash fan debating whether or not to buy season tickets and/or travel to Rochester for a match, can Wambach quitting the team possibly do anything to sway you to the affirmative?
Will others follow Wambach’s lead? It does not appear that anyone else will sit before the World Cup, but Charles Boehm cited unnamed sources that more than a few others were considering a break after Canada instead of finishing out the NWSL season. If true, this could be a problem on several fronts. It would drain other markets of prominent players and it would put coaches in delicate spots since they are being forced to hold roster spots for their World Cup players for the entire season (presumably they would have open spots once any player decided not to return this season). Even in the case of Wambach, who will not occupy a roster spot with the Flash, the club will have to pay for her replacements instead of having it covered by U.S. Soccer.
What about 2016? Reading the tea leaves, it is difficult to imagine Wambach ever playing in NWSL again unless she gets a move to the Thorns (she told Grant Wahl it was tough to be away from Portland last summer, while in the same interview she mentioned playing in Europe – draw your own conclusions). The Olympic Games next summer end even later than the World Cup, so anyone else that does not return for the end of NWSL 2015 almost certainly would not in 2016 either. At that point, wouldn’t the clubs want to move forward without them? More importantly, could they afford it?
What are the expansion candidates thinking? Atlanta, Salt Lake, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh are all cities with known interest in joining the NWSL. There are at least two others, perhaps more. What are they thinking now? Will anyone want to join a league that in 2016 might be missing a large number of prominent players? And will anyone want to commit for 2017 without knowing what sort of presence the top U.S. players will have?
What about non-national team Americans? Year two of NWSL was highlighted by a slew of Americans returning to the states to play domestically. Yael Averbuch, Amber Brooks and Sarah Hagen were the most notable. Alyssa Naeher came at the end of 2013. Megan Rapinoe left Lyon permanently to sign a multi-year contract to play for the Reign (presumably assuring her of fulfilling her commitments after the World Cup). But Brooks never even got invited to another national team camp, nor did others like Jen Buczkowski; Hagen played only 17 minutes in early 2014. Erika Tymrak and Allie Long got passing looks — Tymrak under Tom Sermanni and Long under current coach Jill Ellis. We can debate the merits of these players another time. More importantly, how are players who left Europe at the behest of U.S. Soccer going to feel about being virtually ignored by the national team? And now that the No. 1 star on that national team is eschewing the very league those players were called home to support, will the next wave of players fall in line or become defiant and play overseas?
Is there a conclusion? As with most things, despite our desire to figure it all out immediately, the answer is no. At best, Wambach’s situation could be a total outlier (notably, few if any of her U.S. teammates have since come out in public support of NWSL). At worst, a mass exodus of national team stars could sink the league. More likely the situation will take some massaging, and the league will have to overcome some growing pains over the next two years and hopefully come out the other side of the Olympics in good enough shape and survive and thrive.
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