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The Lowdown: Jeff Plush on the state of NWSL

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush says the league hopes to have 14 teams by 2020. (Photo Courtesy NWSLsoccer.com)

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush spoke to the media at the 2016 NWSL College Draft regarding a number of topics. (Photo Courtesy NWSLsoccer.com)

A year ago, at the 2015 college draft, Jeff Plush introduced himself to the small but dedicated NWSL press corps. His outlook was positive, but his demeanor was guarded, and he hid behind the newness of his job as a means of evading certain questions. Plush’s first year on the job as the first commissioner of NWSL, taking over from NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey, was a banner season for the league but a mixed bag for the man who was in charge but not the all-encompassing face of the league and its vision that some had hoped.

In 2015, NWSL saw attendance climb by a significant margin aided by a dramatic wave of enthusiasm following the World Cup. The NWSL Championship was held at a pre-determined venue for the first time and began to feel like an event. But the commissioner took some heat for staying silent on the podium at the ticker tape parade and having his MLS counterpart Don Garber attempt to sell the crowd on that weekend’s Sky Blue match. And a defensive Plush got into a testy exchange with a reporter on a national conference call regarding the lack of national sponsors the league had attracted since the end of the World Cup. A few weeks after that, NWSL welcomed its 10th team, the Orlando Pride, and stayed in the consciousness of its fans with a flurry of high-profile player moves.

Fast forward to the 2016 draft and Jeff Plush again met with the assembled press following the festivities. The one-time managing director of the Colorado Rapids will never be confused with the affable Paul Riley, but this time the demeanor was far more relaxed as Plush laid out his vision for NWSL. He even went so far as to stick around after the microphones were off for a few minutes of idle chitchat with some reporters.

[MORE: USWNT Olympic qualifying roster announced — O’Reilly omitted]

Sure the fourth NWSL college draft was not exactly a milestone, as WPS also had a draft ahead of its ill-fated fourth season. But the few who were at that 2012 WPS draft will remember it as a drab event that felt almost like a funeral for someone who was technically still alive. The 2016 NWSL draft was more like a party. And unlike its counterpart four years prior, the 2016 draft carried zero percent apprehension over the status of the coming season. Its significance is lost neither on Plush nor those he speaks to about the possibility of doing business with the league.

“That was a real question that needed to be asked and I totally respect it,” Plush said. “It gets asked less.” The commissioner said that many prospective sponsors have balked, blindly believing that NWSL—like both its predecessors—would not survive beyond a third season. “We’re feeling good that those conversations are going to be less and less. People are understanding that we’re around for the long haul.”

Here is a summary of some of the other topics discussed by Jeff Plush on draft day. Some of the comments have been condensed or combined where topics were visited more than once. Some of my own commentary is inserted as well.

ON THE NEW ALLOCATION PROCESS: “We’ve been working on it for quite some time and yesterday (January 14) was our first board meeting to vote on it. So while it maybe came a little bit late for people like yourselves, it is something we’ve been working on at board level for awhile. It’s the next iteration of where our league needs to go. It actually creates a lot of things that people want out of an allocation process. That is clarity and transparency and a tracking order so you can understand what’s going to happen. It creates an asset for a situation where at least if a player doesn’t want to go to a certain market, a team doesn’t come out of that with nothing. It’s the right time. The next step in our evolution.

“There aren’t any of those other countries yet though I’d say there have been preliminary conversations with other federations and potential partners. Clearly this could be a mechanism. Every negotiation takes on a life of its own a little bit, but we’re excited to have a mechanism to allow for players to come in the league in a transparent way. Or for players to stay in the league in a transparent way that might drop off allocation.

[MORE: Explaining new ranking mechanism for acquiring subsidized players]

ON AUSTRALIA:

Sam Kerr is out three months with a ruptured ligament in her foot. (Photo Courtesy Sky Blue FC/Robyn McNeil)

Sam Kerr is one of several Australian players in NWSL. (Photo Courtesy Sky Blue FC/Robyn McNeil)

“We’re still talking to Australia for sure. They’ve been great friends of ours and as you know we have a lot of players who go down there in our offseason. The counterseasonal nature of our two leagues makes it on a lot of levels a potential partner. But still very early conversations.

Lauletta: Mallory Pugh saga aside, this only makes sense if NWSL plans to either scrap the discovery process and have the league negotiate all contracts or if there is a plan to bring other federations on board. Australia makes sense because of how the seasons align and how many players already play in each other’s leagues. But maybe a second-tier country with one or two good players will decide NWSL is the best place for them and may decide to pay the freight themselves. There are lots of possibilities here. Unfortunately, the rushed allocation process announcement has the NWSL dangling out there to be debated and critiqued until we learn more.

ON LATE INFORMATION: “We don’t endeavor to give late information to people. I think there’s a reality of where we are in our evolution. We’re just starting our fourth year which we’re excited about. Some of these things happen late because there are opportunities that come to us and you want to take advantage of them. If there’s a complaint about the TV announcement that’s my mistake for probably giving you guys the wrong expectations early on—which I won’t be doing this year.”

ON A TELEVISION DEAL FOR 2016: “We’re looking for it sooner than we had last year. I wouldn’t give a time frame just yet. We’re looking for someone who wants to continue to be a good partner of ours. Out of that as a starting point will determine the right number of games. Is there a possibility for more than one outlet? I think we’ll look at that as well. At the same time we’re looking at how to elevate our streaming capabilities to take ownership of our own content also. There’s a lot of things we’re discussing from a media point of view that will be positive. As we sit here in January there is still time to work on these things.

“Specifically in our conversations with the incumbent it’s still one year. But that’s not something that worries us. FOX is committed to the World Cup through 2026. Neither me nor our board are upset or worried about a one-year, rolling offer. We always want to make sure it’s good business for everyone so that doesn’t bother us.”

ON THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF A VENUE FOR THE NWSL CHAMPIONSHIP: “Maybe not tied to when the schedule comes out, but certainly in the near term we are very far down the path on finalizing that. That was one that we could have announced sooner (in 2015). Candidly what we were trying to do was sell a title sponsor to the event. It wasn’t by design to leak that late.”

ON HOLDING THE FINAL IN A PRE-DETERMINED VENUE: “For the next couple of years we like this format. We understand that others may have a different point of view. MLS did that for a long time and there’s a lot of value to bringing people into one market and to tell you well in advance where it’s going to be, when it’s going to be, and create ancillary events off of that. Clearly it was a tremendous event for us last year so we’ll keep on trying to build that into a marquee event on the fall calendar.

“What you’ll see for 2016 is us trying to really take the championship up to another level. (We’ll) have multiple events that are marketed well in advance of what they were last year. And that’s just not a one-night thing. That could be a two or three-day celebration of the sport and also the young women in our league.”

Lauletta: I loved the 2015 final and can’t wait for the next several wherever they wind up. The longer the lead time the better so let’s hope something comes out soon. Plush later hinted the date could be announced with the regular season schedule (tentatively slated for early February) which would likely mean both a television deal and venue for the final would come with it.

ON FUTURE EXPANSION AND THE PLAYER POOL:

(Photo: Orlando Pride)

The Orlando Pride was announced last October as the NWSL’s 10th franchise. (Photo: Orlando Pride)

“Each expansion conversation is a negotiation unto itself. We’re not going to talk about expansion in any depth today. Part of the reason is we’re going to work through all those elements before we go back out to the market place to make sure we’re able to approach potential expansion partners with more clarity around players. As the league has grown now with 10 teams going to 11 or 12 there’s not that pool of players anymore. The pool that helped launch the league in the right way doesn’t exist. They’re already on teams. And we certainly don’t want to be in the business of taking players off of teams. So we have to figure that out a little bit.

“It takes time to find the right people and the right market places. Do I think there is an appetite in six more markets over the next 10 years? Absolutely I do.”

Lauletta: The $1 million question. The Dash still feel hard done by what they got upon entering the league two years ago while the Pride have been handed the golden goose. But as Plush said, U.S. Soccer is out of players now so how the next wave of expansion clubs stock their rosters will be a story in and of itself.

ON THE POSSIBILITY OF IMPLEMENTING A HOMEGROWN SYSTEM: “Eventually is probably the operative word. We don’t have an academy system yet. We do have clubs that have some but that’s not a league wide thing. That’s certainly something we talked about in depth (at the owners’ meetings last week.) If you talk about where I think we’ll be in ten years, will we have youth systems and fully built out pyramids and developing our own players? I believe so. So a homegrown rule would make sense. But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We’re not close to being ready for that.”

ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A DESIGNATED PLAYER RULE: “I don’t see it in the near term. We’ll continue to see salaries grow as they have year over year. You can make the argument for things like a designated player, but you can equally make the argument for larger rosters. If we’re just purely talking quality of play and the ability to absorb call-ups or injuries I might argue that 24 (as opposed to 20) is a better place to spend money.”

ON THE NOTION OF A WIDENING GAP IN THE RESOURCES AND AMBITION BETWEEN MLS RUN CLUBS AND OTHER CLUBS: “I don’t ever hear that about ambition. Is there a difference between a Portland economically today and some of the non-MLS clubs? Yes, there is. But we have rules in place and hard salary caps and the ability to create guard rails to make the competition consistent and fair. I feel strongly that we’re aligned on the importance of the big stuff and the vision. I also think that’s organic. We don’t just say we’re aligned here on January 15, job done. We’re always working to make sure we communicate properly and take on board differences of opinion. The important thing in every league that I know of around the world, there’s going to be big and small. There’s going to be different points of view. That’s okay. What’s important from a league office perspective is to take all that on board and distill it down to the best solution or everyone.”

ON NATIONAL SPONSORSHIP DEALS: “We’ve gotten out renewals of Nike, our renewals of Coppertone and National Mango Board so pleased with all those things. We’re out there every day. As you know Soccer United Marketing (SUM) is our agency. No one is better equipped to sell soccer in the United States than SUM is. There’s a tremendous amount of activity. We’re feeling good that we’ll get things over the line in time for the April openers. But sponsors don’t happen overnight.”

ON THE LENGTH OF THE SEASON: “Do we want to expand our season? Certainly. Do we want to have more games? For sure. Does the footprint need to grow appreciably more? I’m not certain that it does, but the number of games within that footprint does need to grow. I think coaches would have a different opinion, they would rather have more games but more time in between games.”

Lauletta: It sounds like the commissioner wants more games played in roughly the same time frame that has been used to this point. I disagree. The season absolutely needs to be longer in terms of games played, but it also has to consume more of the calendar. As Plush said there are numerous obstacles, notably finances and stadium availability, but for me the goal needs to be getting to a season that covers at least eight months.

Free Kicks

– Sydney Leroux announced on Monday that she and husband Dom Dwyer of Sporting Kansas City are expecting their first child. As a result Leroux is out of consideration for the Olympic roster and the 2016 NWSL season. It is a blow to FC Kansas City who acquired Leroux on draft week after learning their incumbent scoring queen Amy Rodriguez was pregnant. (Rodriguez may be back for the tail end of the NWSL campaign.) The club also traded Sarah Hagen to Orlando before learning of Rodriguez’s maternity status. Combined with a slew of retirements, the deck just got stacked that much higher against the two-time defending NWSL champions. It now looks like Shea Groom and Tiffany McCarty will be called on to carry the scoring load. The Blues also drafted forward Alexa Newfield from North Carolina.

– Word is that Canadian allocation announcements are due out soon. That was also the word two weeks ago. And three. One piece fell into focus Monday when the Red Stars announced the acquisition of Amanda Da Costa from the Spirit for a player to be named later. Several sources have indicated that player will be Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbé who is expected to be allocated to Washington. Labbé was first tied to the Spirit via an Equalizer report by Harjeet Johal.

– Full Bloom Guide reported Monday what had been whispered about for a week or so. Brittany Cameron looks to be leaving Sky Blue to hook on full-time with Vegalta Sendai in Japan where she has spent offseasons on loan. That will leave Sky Blue with exactly zero minutes of professional experience in their goalkeeping ranks. Third round pick Caroline Casey from William & Mary is the only other keeper on the roster. Aubrey Bledsoe was taken by the Pride in the expansion draft.

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