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Run of Play: Internationals get it done

Sam Kerr scored two goals and added one assist in Sky Blue's 3-1 victory over the Portland Thorns this past weekend (photo courtesy of Sky Blue)

Sam Kerr scored two goals and added one assist in Sky Blue’s 3-1 victory over the Portland Thorns this past weekend (photo courtesy of Sky Blue)

In the four years and counting of the NWSL, over thirty countries have been represented among the players, including every continent but Antarctica. Acquiring international players has become an art among NWSL coaches, who have had to use ways other than salaries to persuade the world’s best players to spend seven months in the states. This past weekend, international players put their talents on display, accounting for 13 of the weekend’s 20 goals–including all 10 goals in Houston and Portland–and seven of the 17 assists.

The NWSL began as a partnership between the US, Canada, and Mexico, and although Mexico has since withdrawn, allocated Canadian players (meaning their federation pays their salaries) still do not take up international slots. Players with American citizenship or green cards, regardless of what national team they play for, also do not fill international slots. Otherwise, teams are allotted a certain number of international slots to begin with (this season it’s four) and can trade for more.

It can be a risky business. The Houston Dash lost seven players, all starters, prior to last year’s Rio Olympics, and the Orlando Pride could be missing seven to nine players for a game or two during the upcoming Tournament of Nations. With only 20 players allowed on rosters, these tournaments can be rough on NWSL teams, forcing them to call up amateur players (a terrible misnomer, but that’s a story for another time) just to put a squad on the field. Thankfully, the NWSL gets better about observing international breaks each year.

At other times, players simply don’t adapt, be it to the league or the team. Irish striker Stephanie Roche made only two appearances for the Dash in 2015 before being waived early in the season, unable to handle the Texas heat. Her teammate Denise O’Sullivan appears to be having better luck, now in her second season with the Dash. Unlike many other Matildas, Teigen Allen’s 2014 stint with the Western New York Flash wasn’t notable for much besides earning two yellow cards in four appearances.

As mentioned previously, salary caps make it difficult for teams to compete monetarily with the world’s top clubs. The league’s biggest signings, like Marta, Amandine Henry, and Kim Little, either gave up higher salaries or the opportunity for higher salaries to come to the US. Henry mentioned playing with the best players in the world as well as Portland’s famous large crowds as a reason for leaving Olympique Lyon. With Marta, it was the players, including Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan, with whom she won the 2011 WPS Championship while on the Flash. And always, the athleticism and parity of the league is a selling point. The speed of play is faster, if not as technical, than probably any other women’s league in the world, and while 10-0 scorelines are not unheard of in France’s Division 1 Féminine, nearly any NWSL team can beat any other on a given day, as the (at that time) last place Pride demonstrated against the Courage.

Brazil is the latest country to make a splash in the NWSL. Debinha has been a huge part of North Carolina’s firm hold on first place in the standings. Dash midfielder Andressa tallied two assists in Houston’s 4-2 loss to Orlando on Saturday, one of which was to Poliana, who is now the Dash’s leading scorer in 2017. On the other end of the pitch, Marta was involved in all four Pride goals, scoring two herself (including the game-winner) and assisting on two others, including this long-distance rocket by Camila that picked up the Goal of the Week.

Australian Alanna Kennedy scored the other goal for the Pride, while elsewhere her Matildas teammate Sam Kerr was named Player of the Week for her two goal, one assist performance against Portland. This placed Kerr as Sky Blue’s leading goal scorer in just three partial seasons, knocking Denmark’s Nadia Nadim out of the top spot. The relationship between the NWSL and Australia’s W-League is unique due to the timing of the seasons; players can and do play in both for an almost-year round professional soccer experience. Given the large number of players who appear in both leagues – in 2016-2017, all 10 NWSL teams were represented on eight of the W-League’s nine teams – a formal partnership between the federations is probably overdue.

The league has a long way to go before it can attract and retain barnstorming teams like Lyon, or even the star-studded rosters of the WUSA and WPS. We’re not likely to see half-million dollar salaries again any time soon, if ever, but it’s proven to have enough superior qualities to build teams like Portland who could compete with nearly any Champions League side. As the league continues to stabilize and grow in both resources and reputation, top-notch internationals will continue to come our way, and as last weekend proved, it’s all for the better.

{Read More: Tony DiCicco passes away  |  The soccer world reacts}

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