In an NWSL offseason highlighted in part by prominent players heading to Europe, there has been one high profile addition that has flown under the radar. Amanda Duffy came in unannounced through the side door as the league’s Managing Director of Operations. Despite the inconspicuous nature of her entrance, Duffy figures to be front and center in a growing league office.
“It really will reach into all aspects of what we’re doing as a league,” Duffy said of her new role. “I go back to operation probably for lack of a better word.”
When Duffy strode to the podium to help ring in the 2017 NWSL draft, she offered the league an instant air of credibility. After hanging up her playing cleats at the end of 2006, Duffy was hired by the USL and eventually became Senior Director of the W-League. Most recently she worked for Louisville FC, a USL club she joined prior to launch and wound up as its president. Being a successful woman in what remains mostly a man’s world has helped Duffy stand out, and her arrival to NWSL was met with near universal approval.
“There (are) a lot of similarities in functions,” she said when asked to compare her new role to what she did with the W-League. “With USL and the W-League, I was part of a franchise model, where with NWSL we’re operating as a single entity so there (are) some differences with how you actually process certain things with player rights. I’m seeing that right now. We’re sort of in the thick of it.”
Expanding on the notion that she will be reaching into all aspects of how the league operates, Duffy added that she will be involved in “…essentially the management of our operations, the basic operations of the teams, the competition, the player registration, the rights, working with Patrick (Donnelly) on the communications side.
“The overall league has to operate, and there’s so many different aspects of how we’re going to do that. You might not say that communications is under operations, but I do. It’s all under how we operate and present NWSL to the public, how we take care of our players and our clubs.”
Duffy was a standout player at East Carolina and nearly played in WUSA, getting as close as preseason with the Carolina Courage in 2003. By the WPS era, she followed from her post with the W-League. Now she has an opportunity to be hands-on with the top flight women’s league on the continent.
“Being part of the women’s game is something that is valuable to me. I’m excited about having this opportunity to work with NWSL and with U.S. Soccer and creating this.
“There has been a lot accomplished in the first four years. We’re into 2017, which will be the fifth season. It’s well underway and moving quickly. As we execute this year and look to years six and 10 – what do we want that to look like, and how do we work with the clubs to raise the standard? Not just the league but the clubs and the players. All aspects of it.”
On the club side, Duffy intends to roll up her sleeves and work with all of them to make sure those raised standards are being met. Having now worked for a club as well as in a league capacity, she will be able to see both sides of it. She also realizes the great disparity between the clubs.
“I think it’s going to vary from club to club, if I’m honest,” she said. “We have MLS-owned teams, and we have some independently-owned teams. At each stage they’re going to have their strengths and weaknesses. I haven’t been able to yet get involved in those intricacies. Just overall working within the markets creates opportunities whether that’s marketing, revenue generating, or player experience. There are multiple areas where we’re going to look at and focus. Some teams will do better on the revenue-generating side and some will do better with the player-experience side or working with youth clubs within that market.
“I wouldn’t say that’s a challenge. I would say it’s a unique opportunity that we can just go in and really set expectations for what we want to see across the board. A team will know if they’re doing really well in one area but need to improve in another. They’re going to know what area that is and what level they would need to get to so we’re all operating to that standard across the board.”
When Duffy helped get Louisville FC off the ground, the club quickly gained a reputation for having one of the best in-stadium experiences in the USL. It is all part of what she calls the game day presentation and what she believes is an important part of moving NWSL forward.
“The game day presentation is going to be a part of that,” she said when asked about raising standards around the league. “Obviously we have all of our games online streaming, so we want to look at what that looks like. Does it meet the Division I standards on paper and the eye test for what we want our product to look like on the field and off the field?”
Since October’s NWSL Championship there have been various hints and promises from league and club personnel about exciting changes on the way for the league that now operates in the context of growth rather than fighting for existence. To this point, most of them are merely words.
That is not to say there have not been positive developments at the league level. Buyers for the Flash (now North Carolina Courage) and FC Kansas City were huge steps for women’s soccer. An enhanced television and distribution package is on the way but details remain a mystery. Commissioner Jeff Plush is as bullish as ever regarding expansion, but there have been whispers that more teams could relocate before the size of the group is expanded.
Another area of growth kept quiet is the league office. Duffy is one of three recent hires which doubled the full time staff to a half dozen, and there is board approval to double that number again to 12 by the end of 2017.
“If you look at the first four years and all that was accomplished by such a small staff, I think overall in the operation of this league we’re going to see some big steps taken forward,” Duffy said. “We’re trying to accomplish a lot and really operate at the highest level of a Division I women’s professional league. We want to exceed the expectations from our fans and our players and everyone who supports the league and supports what we’re doing. The growth in our staff and clarification in responsibilities and roles is going to be a big help as we move forward and really streamlining what we’re doing here in the front office.”
Duffy said she was happy at Louisville FC but found it difficult to pass up an opportunity to help grow the women’s game as well as to create opportunities for women to have prominent roles in that growth. The biggest factor in taking the job though is the support she felt from all relevant parties.
“The biggest thing is there is support. There is support from U.S. Soccer, support from ownership to see this through and really want to talk about year 10 and year 15. Across the board everyone is really working together and collaborating to really put our best business out in front in the women’s soccer space.
“The biggest thing with me is I don’t come in with an expectation that things are going to be different overnight. I understand we’re going to year five, but I still feel like this is a new league that is trying to find stability on its feet.”
-The Pride are going for it. Monday’s acquisition of Chioma Ubogagu and last week’s trade for rookie Rachel Hill signals that the club is emptying the tank in an effort to be a playoff team in 2017. But is the roster good enough to warrant being down to a 2nd round pick in 2018?
-The Spirit continue to ship out major contributors from the 2016 squad. The latest was Diana Matheson who went to Seattle for rookie Arielle Ship and a 3rd round pick. Matheson asked to be traded, apparently because at 33 she did not want to be part of a rebuild. Questions remain though as to why the team that played as attractively as any in NWSL last season has been systematically breaking down that team.
-Jim Gabarra sounds very high on Ship and some of my NCAA confidants suggest she could jump right in and contribute. But short of Ship being a major steal at No. 26, how is the trade value between Matheson and Ubagagu so similar?
-How about this? As presently constructed I don’t think the Spirit will be that bad. And they should be better in the summer than they are in April and May.
-We’re still better than 11 months out from the 2018 NWSL draft and already 11 of the 40 picks have been traded. Currently the Pride and Reign are out of the 1st round and down to a single pick each (2nd round for the Pride, 4th for the Reign). The Red Stars and Thorns have the extra 1st rounder. The Red Stars are sitting on seven picks. Only Sky Blue and FC Kansas City have neither traded nor acquired a pick.