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Are you not entertained?! Welcome back to the NWSL

Photo Copyright Daniela Porcelli for The Equalizer

Are you not entertained?! Welcome back to the NWSL

Editor’s note: We always feel like we can be doing more. There’s a certain gap between wanting to do more and being able to do more — and we hope to continue to bridge that. We’ll be introducing new features and columns in the coming weeks, and we want your input. If you’re already a subscriber, let us know what you want more of. If you aren’t a subscriber, what’s missing that would get you to subscribe?

My plan is for this column to occupy space on Mondays, coming out of weekend action. I’ve tossed around a bunch of name ideas and they all seem pretty cliche, so hit me up with your suggestions there as well. The goal is to present a thoughtful view on a pressing topic — NWSL, U.S. women’s national team, or beyond — along with perspective you won’t get elsewhere. Going forward, this will be for subscribers only. This one here? I hope you enjoy it. You can start your free, seven-day trial right now by clicking here.

Eight matches have already been played in the National Women’s Soccer League since the United States women were crowned World Cup champions on July 7 in Lyon, France. Twenty-two goals have been scored – several of them spectacular – and we’ve been blessed with a level of entertainment that any soccer or general sports fan should appreciate.

The days and weeks after a major tournament can be a precarious time for women’s soccer. The NWSL, unlike its major European competitors, finds itself in the middle of a season, trying to re-incorporate World Cup players as they return to their clubs. U.S. players need to navigate a delicate balancing act of giving their body a rest – from soccer and subsequent celebrations – while getting right back to work with their NWSL teams. Clubs have to strategically market their stars without asking too much of them and risking injury.

For the most part, they did get back to work – and that’s notable given the much slower, staggered trickle of players back to the NWSL following the Americans’ 2015 triumph. The new collective bargaining agreement requires four mandatory days off for players after their World Cup duties – and media appearances in New York and Los Angeles are counted as workdays. Nearly two weeks ago, they flew from Lyon to New York, woke up for an early parade in New York and flew to LA that night for the ESPY awards and further celebration, by which point their internal body clocks were likely more confused than most American fans trying to navigate the Lyon tram system.

U.S. players returned to their teams early last week, making this past weekend the first official full slate of matches in which all the World Cup players would return to action (minus those injured and Carli Lloyd, who was listed on the injury report with an excused absence). And – for better or worse – in a league run by U.S. Soccer, where all 23 U.S. World Cup players ply their trade, the true homecoming celebrations were always going to revolve around the Americans – particularly following their second consecutive World Cup triumph. They’d captured the attention of the country and the world once again, this time in a distinctly more powerful, revolutionary way than four years ago.

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And just as the question was four years ago after the U.S. won in Canada; just as many wondered eight years ago after their dramatic runners-up finish in Germany, or in 1999 when they won on home soil, when the aftermath of each tournament saw domestic leagues rise and fall: Now what?

The NWSL is largely the one that needs to answer that question. The league at large cannot be personified, either; it’s the job of NWSL president Amanda Duffy and her staff, the nine ownership groups and their front offices, the players – and, yes, U.S. Soccer – to convert this energy into tangible gains at more local levels.

Attendance is always that front-facing barometer for interest. A record crowd of 17,388 fans showed up in Bridgeview, Illinois, on Sunday for the Chicago Red Stars’ 2-1 victory over the North Carolina Courage. Utah Royals FC drew 15,931 fans, while the Washington Spirit sold out the SoccerPlex (and battled a halftime weather delay) with 5,500 fans. The 9,415 figure for the Orlando Pride’s home game is a considerable jump for a club which has struggled to gain traction since initial interest following that last World Cup. Reign FC expects a record crowd of 7,000-plus fans this weekend.

So, in that sense, the supposed World Cup bump is alive and well. That Red Stars-Courage game was on ESPN2, a TV deal that provides a short-term bump for the league through 2019. Longer-term, there’s the new sponsorship from Budweiser, who hit the nail on the head with the campaign about “Won’t Stop Watching.” If the league can’t move forward at a time like this, it’s never going to.

Kristen Hamilton’s time is now

We’ve discussed the commercial aspect of this moment at length, and we’re going to continue talking about it; all these topics have to do with the viability of the league. John Halloran recently explored how the NWSL might be missing its World Cup moment. Utah Royals FC coach Laura Harvey last week expressed a frustration that I’ve heard from teams and sources across the league all year: the league isn’t proactive enough with anything, and it didn’t have a centralized, national plan for capitalizing on the World Cup.

Before we get further in the weeds there, however, let’s just put this out there right now: The four NWSL games we just witnessed were the best possible kind of retargeting advertisements the league could ask for. Like The Governors Ball music festival hitting you with a headline act on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the weekend’s NWSL action just kept pumping world-class entertainment right into our veins. It was a three-day endorphin high of nutmegs, goals and drama from superstars and rookies alike – the kind of weekend the league could only dream of with this type of spotlight that it so rarely enjoys.

Portland Thorns FC and the Orlando Pride provided the appetizer on July 14 with a 4-3, stoppage-time-winner thriller in the league’s first TV game of the year. And the Thorns were right back at it on Friday, when Christine Sinclair needed just nine minutes to sweetly and casually hit a half-volley into the upper corner. Christen Press, scorer of an important goal in an impromptu World Cup semifinal start, returned to her Utah team – one desperately in need of goal-scoring – and made going viral look so easy as she nutmegged Elizabeth Ball and smashed her shot into the tightest of near-post windows to equalize before halftime.

Portland would go ahead late, before conceding again in the 90th-minute – as Adrianna Franch made two world-class saves in stoppage time, including one off her face from point-blank range – and the first full-strength, post-World Cup match between the league’s two big-gun, MLS-backed teams, was a Friday-night delight.

Saturday saw the Houston Dash win for the first time in two months, via at least one gorgeous goal, and Orlando’s Marisa Viggiano even made the last-versus-second-to-last match-up with Sky Blue a memorable one as she found the upper corner from 18 yards out.

Sunday’s clash outside Chicago was one that the scheduling algorithm got right. Chicago and North Carolina have developed a rivalry fueled by the Courage eliminating the Red Stars at the semifinal stage each of the past two seasons. Sam Kerr continues to make her case for best player in the world – as she has for the past two-plus years – as she did one better than Press’ nutmeg, cutting the ball back through the legs of Courage defender Abby Erceg and finishing her shot through the legs of goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe.

Kerr was hardly alone in the spotlight on Sunday, even if she typically steals it with her play. Half of the 22 starters on the field that day participated in the 2019 World Cup; Crystal Dunn, nursing a right ankle issue, made it 12 for the day when she came off the bench. Eight 2019 World Cup champions played in the match.

But just as Kerr and Sinclair reminded us that this league has more than American superstars, Brazilian conductor Debinha ruled the midfield for large stretches, highlighted by her no-look assist to Lynn Williams which had the type of backspin that would have made jealous Tiger Woods in his prime.

NC and CRS players who were involved in the World Cup. (Photo by Daniela Porcelli)

It was a wonderful way to cap off a weekend of spectacular soccer. Plenty of people will have been exposed to the NWSL for the first time this week, and as much as the league needs ESPN, Budweiser and much more corporate support than that, it also must put a good product on the field. Doing so isn’t a guarantee on any weekend, in any league – men’s or women’s. It can be an especially tough ask in the dead of summer heat, as teams change half their starting lineups to re-integrate World Cup players, many of whom are carrying heavy legs and maybe even a World Cup hangover of multiple varieties.

Getting excited about the NWSL after the grind of the World Cup can feel like a task sometimes – for players, fans and media alike. This weekend, however, was an injection of life on the field that reminded us why this league is absolute chaos – and so freaking fun.

The third mini season of this 2019 campaign is upon us. Coaches navigated pre-World Cup, where they had limited time with internationals. They battled through the stretch of games during the World Cup, when they had to reach deep into their rosters to find solutions from sometimes unproven players.

Now, they begin the homestretch with all their international players back. The standings look like the usual cluttered chaos around this time of year, with the top six teams separated by only five points. The beautiful part? We have another three months until a champion is crowned. Sit back and enjoy. And crack open a cold one – you know, to support the sponsors.

Jill Ellis is actually a good coach


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