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2015 Year in Review: National Women’s Soccer League

Lauren Holiday will retire having added another NWSL Championship to her World Cup trophy. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Lauren Holiday will retire having added another NWSL Championship to her World Cup trophy. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Third seasons have been the bugaboo for women’s pro soccer leagues.  WUSA teetered on the brink before pushing ahead with its third season in 2003.  When it was over, the league was in such dire financial straits that the plug was pulled less than a week before the start of a domestic World Cup.  Eight years later, WPS had already nailed its own coffin mostly shut when it sold its soul to a rogue owner named Dan Borislow, who relocated the Washington Freedom to Florida.  Although Borislow stocked the roster with great players, the relocation may as well have been to oblivion.  He ran afoul of league policy at nearly every turn, helped turn the 2011 season into an utter embarrassment, and was embroiled in several legal battles with the league when, after a feeble attempt to bridge to a fourth season, the cost of the court wars became the final nail.

NWSL’s third season had its share of ups and downs, but when the final whistle was blown Oct. 1 in Portland there was absolutely no doubt the third try at a sustainable, U.S. based league for female soccer players was ready to press forward into a fourth season, and likely beyond.  Less than a month later, Orlando Pride became the 10th team in the loop, bursting on the scene by selling more than 1,000 season tickets in the first week.  Subsequent acquisitions of Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris gave the new club instant panache.

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The highs and lows of the season were on full display alongside each other the weekend following the United States’ triumph in the World Cup.  As the long-anticipated attendance bump took hold almost overnight, the newly-minted world champions decided en masse not to suit up for that weekend’s matches.  Most were eventually persuaded to make appearances in front of some of the biggest crowds the league has seen, but the episode squashed some of the positive momentum and highlighted what has sometimes been a tenuous relationship between the league and its most marketable players.

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Season three did have some particularly memorable moments that are certain to live on for as long as NWSL survives:

June 19:  Portland Thorns FC 1, FC Kansas City 1

In the first league match after a 13-day break for the World Cup group stage, the Thorns were bumbling along to another sloppy loss when they sent goalkeeper Michelle Betos into the Kansas City penalty area for a stoppage time corner kick.  It took two tries, but after the defense cleared out the first attempt, the second one by Allie Long found Betos unmarked at which time only the color of her kit belied the fact she was not a born goal scorer.  Betos’ header gave the Thorns a 1-1 draw and immediately became one of the most widely circulated sporting clips of the weekend.

August 1:  Washington Spirit 3, Houston Dash 1

Crystal Dunn found out early in the season that she would not be part of the United States team at the World Cup.  She promptly took out her frustration on opposing NWSL defenses, never more so than the showdown at the SoccerPlex against Golden Ball winner Carli Lloyd.  Mimicking her almost-World Cup teammate’s hat trick in the final, Dunn decimated the Dash for three first-half goals, the first of which saw her maneuver around five defenders in one of the great individual efforts of the season.

August 29:  Seattle Reign FC 1, Sky Blue FC 1

The stakes were little for the Reign, who had already wrapped up a second straight Shield and home semifinal.  So when they fell behind early to Sky Blue and continued to trail as time ticked away and rain fell harder, no one would have begrudged Laura Harvey’s side if they took their lumps and moved on to the next one.  But no team had defeated the Reign at Memorial Stadium since the club took up residency there in 2014.  And they were not about to let Sky Blue be the first.  In the 90th minute, Jessica Fishlock found the equalizer, a goal that set off a raucous celebration everywhere from the Reign sideline to the bleachers at the old stadium under the Space Needle.  The Reign will now enter 2016 still defending an unbeaten mark at Memorial.

We said goodbye

Much of the attention around the NWSL Championship was on the final league appearance for Lauren Holiday who announced her retirement in the aftermath of the World Cup.  Holiday went out a winner, but she was not the only prominent player to call 2015 her final NWSL season.

Fellow champions Leigh Ann Brown (nee Robinson) and Amy LePeilbet also called it a career, as did Stephanie Cox, who was on the other side of the Championship result.  Goalkeepers Nadine Angerer and Karina LeBlanc knew the World Cup would be their international swan songs and soon after retired from the game altogether.  Shannon Boxx never made it back to NWSL after the World Cup but her Red Stars’ teammate Lori Chalupny kept her plans close to the best until well after the season.

Abby Wambach’s decision to skip the season was one of the lowlights of 2015 for NWSL, but the league quickly found its footing without her.  Wambach has since retired and although she did not play this year she made extraordinary contributions to all three leagues dating back to 2002.

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