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The Lowdown: NWSL Louisville a sure sign of life for young league

The National Women’s Soccer League finally did what so many of us have been imploring it to do for years: expand. On Tuesday, league president Amanda Duffy returned to her old stomping grounds, where she once served as the president of Louisville City FC, and announced that the club will add an NWSL team — in 2021.

After extremely short run-ups to launch for every other team in league history — including the eight founding teams in 2013 — the team currently known as NWSL Louisville will have just shy of a year and a half before playing a competitive match.

So, when team president Brad Estes said, “We’ll have to hire a general manager,” it does not automatically set off a series of alarm bells about who and when. Eighteen months can sneak up on you in a hurry, but in the grand scheme of things, there is plenty of time. And that is just the idea. NWSL expansion may not need the same taxi time as the Major League Soccer franchise announced Monday for Sacramento (entering that league in 2022), but there are only positives than can be taken from making this announcement now.

On the field, any technical staff hires made ahead of the 2020 season can dive deep into scouting players potentially available in an expansion draft or trade market, and the new coach can put proper resources into the college season next fall. Off the field, a more deliberate marketing campaign — including in-stadium advertising during Louisville City matches next season — will help develop a more organic fan base. The extra year will also give the organization time to better figure out staffing.

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Estes said the NWSL club would have an entirely different technical staff but there was no mention made about front-office hires. It has long been a point of consternation inside franchises balancing women’s team with men’s, that there are not enough resources specifically geared toward making the women’s team function. Time will tell how such matters are handled inside NWSL Louisville.

One area that is on firm ground is the stadium. Tuesday’s announcement happened inside Lynn Family Stadium, and the occasional odd angle — not to mention a few hard hats — showed a building still under construction. The new facility is on schedule to open in time for the 2020 Louisville City FC season and accommodate up to 14,000 fans (over 11,000 permanent seats). The new stadium is also the reason club officials cited for not wanting to jump into the NWSL in the 2020 season.

This early announcement will also be beneficial to the existing clubs. For years, coaches have attempted to make moves with half an eye on future expansion, but that expansion didn’t happen. There is still a better than likely chance of expansion for 2020 — and coaches are preparing as if there will be — and there could be more than just Louisville joining for 2021. But teams will now know for sure that, when they build rosters for next season, that some players may wind up in Louisville a year down the road.

To that end, expansion will also put more pressure on the current teams, particularly those without much recent success. The four playoff teams this season were the same as last season, which of course means all five teams that did not make it are on multi-year streaks of missing out. For Sky Blue FC and the Houston Dash, they are both on a half dozen years running without a playoff match. (In the case of the Dash, that means forever.) Expansion means teams losing players and likely being pushed down the draft order. So, teams will have their work cut out for them to catch up.

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The expansion announcement comes on the heels of an announced agreement with sports and entertainment agency Octagon, whose global media rights consulting and marketing divisions will be advising the NWSL on media rights, sponsorship, and marketing. Both announcements are indicators that the league is indeed alive and breathing — two things that have been rightly called into question throughout the year.

In a year that saw the biggest and best-ever World Cup boost to the NWSL attendance and visibility — all nine clubs saw attendance rise in 2019 — the league has been conspicuously quiet. Operating without a communications manager since the days after the 2019 NWSL College Draft more than nine months ago, Duffy has been nearly impossible to reach, and there has been little in the way of official league comment on most issues. Duffy declined to speak with media at recent U.S. women’s national team and NWSL matches — behavior that runs counter to many of her contemporaries around professional sports.

When things did go well, like the week of the World Cup final when ESPN and Budweiser both joined as partners, the announcements were hastily arranged and poor in their timing (2 a.m. EDT anyone?) and execution.

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Also in 2019, the NWSL ended its once lauded deal with A+E, which cost the league appointment television exposure each week. A subsequent agreement with ESPN — which will air Sunday’s NWSL Championship — promised to be for the long haul. But as Sunday’s season finale creeps closer, the NWSL is again preparing to go into an offseason without any agreement in place to broadcast and distribute its matches in 2020. Meanwhile, a too-tight window for last weekend’s semifinals means that Sam Kerr scoring the signature goal of her club career — and the Red Stars existence — happened on the backup channel while the other semifinal was in extra time. And for all the good vibes that emanated out of Sky Blue this season, the club is currently without a confirmed venue for 2020.

Everyone who has chimed in about Louisville City FC has sung the praises of their business practices and of the fan experience at their current venue. It would seem that an astute business group wouldn’t throw itself into the NWSL fray without a fairly strong inclination that things are indeed trending in the right direction. Yet, other expansion groups, including one that went public with its desire to play in Hartford with Kristine Lilly in charge of soccer operations, have gotten the cold shoulder from the league.

The 2019-2020 offseason will be rife with questions and challenges. If we want to call the Louisville announcement the unofficial start to the offseason, then they’re off to a great start. But there are many more questions to be answered, and many more obstacles to overcome.

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NWSL Attendance Watch

Here are the all-time NWSL playoff attendances. Note that finals in 2013 and 2014 were hosted by the higher seed and not announced in advance:

2013
Semifinal in Western New York: 7,316
Semifinal in Kansas City: 4,016

NWSL Championship in Western New York: 9,129

2014
Semifinal in Seattle: 4,540
Semifinal in Kansas City: 2,997

NWSL Championship in Seattle: 4,252
played at Starfire Stadium

2015
Semifinal in Seattle: 5,021
Semifinal in Chicago: 3,031

NWSL Championship in Portland: 13,264

2016
Semifinal in Portland: 20,086
Semifinal in Washington: 4,249

NWSL Championship in Houston: 8,255

2017
Semifinal in Portland: 18,193
Semifinal in North Carolina: 10,017

NWSL Championship in Orlando: 8,124

2018
Semifinal in Portland: 14,179
Semifinal in Portland: 4,646
Courage home match, moved due to Hurricane Irma

NWSL Championship in Portland: 21,144

2019
Semifinal in Chicago: 9,218
Semifinal in North Carolina: 7,422

NWSL Championship in North Carolina: TBD

Free Kicks

— I really didn’t think the Chicago Red Stars would hang on to win 1-0 on Sunday defending as much as they did. I was wrong. In the end, Yuki Nagasato put on a clinic in killing off a game, eschewing late defending for some slick possession skills.

— The Portland Thorns finished the season playing their worst stretch of soccer in the Mark Parsons era. It’s not necessarily time to clean house, but there are questions to be answered in Portland for 2020. Among them, was Lindsey Horan always less than 100 percent physically this season or has she already peaked? Is it time to find a new, true striker? And what to do with Emily Sonnett, assuming she is not gobbled up in expansion?

— I have mixed emotions about the 4-1 scoreline in North Carolina. On one hand, it was an appropriate representation of how much the Courage dominated the match. On the other, it belies just how tough the Reign played them over the opening 98 minutes of the match.

— Debinha’s free kick was the first NWSL playoff goal scored directly off a free kick since Tobin Heath’s goal in the 2013 NWSL Championship. And it was taken about as well as a free kick can be taken.

— Lauren Barnes was called for a penalty and charged with an own goal, and yet played a very strong match. As Tom Sermanni often says: “It’s a funny old game.”

— Paul Riley is now 6-1 in semifinals, including his two seasons in WPS, both of which ended in finals losses with the Philadelphia Independence. He has one two championships in those four finals, one on penalties following the draw in 2016.

— Kerr joins Amy Rodriguez, Denise O’Sullivan, and Lindsey Horan as players to score in 1-0 NWSL playoff games.

— Four years ago, players on FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign FC talked about how cool it would be to be the first players to win the World Cup and NWSL Championship in the same season. In the end, FCKC won making Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez, and Becky Sauerbrunn the first three to do so. There will be a new group this year. It will be either Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jess McDonald, and Sam Mewis for the Courage; or Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher for the Red Stars.

— The only Red Stars player to have appeared in an NWSL Championship before? Sam Kerr, for the 2013 Western New York Flash.

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