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The Lowdown: Wading into the NWSL offseason

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

So what happens now? The National Women’s Soccer League offseason is underway and it is shaping up as a much busier and more newsworthy one than the last. Here’s where things stand and what might be next for the still fledgling league.

The most important board meeting so far

A day after the NWSL Championship, the league’s owners — including the expansion team set to play in Louisville in 2021 — gathered for what was the most significant board meeting since the league launched in 2012. And if the league one day reaches the lofty goal of being on stable ground, with teams embedded into the greater sports culture in their respective towns, it may well go down as the most important meeting owners ever have.

Seven years into a league founded on the merits of air-tight frugality, the folks whose bank accounts are on the line every week are ready to grow up. There is finally a realization among the owners that the only way to the next level and to profitability is to sink more money into the product.

The most eye-popping of the new rules is teams’ ability to acquire up to $300,000 in allocation money which can be used to pay eligible players above the league maximum. This will act as something of a hybrid combining Major League Soccer’s comparable rules for attracting marquee talent that range from designated players to the distribution of various forms of allocation money. It means that the financial gulf that apparently closed the door on a Wendie Renard move to Orlando a few years ago will be largely eliminated. And allocation money can be traded as an asset, so even clubs that choose not to make the splash could have more creative options at their disposal as opposed to just sitting idly by and watching their competitors get better.

There was other important movement to come out the meeting. Minimum and maximum salaries crept up again — as they should every year for the foreseeable future — as did the total salary cap. As Jeff Kassouf points out the total allowable money teams can spend on players, if you include the allocation money, is set to about double.

Housing standards were tweaked to eliminate the use of host families and caps on what teams could spend. While defending himself following reports of inadequate housing conditions at Sky Blue FC, then general manager Tony Novo often lamented how difficult it was trying to house his players under the allowable housing cap in one of the most expensive areas in the country.

Better still, housing must now be provided year-round. This will serve a few purposes, notably more general life stability for the players. Some North Carolina Courage players spent part of NWSL Championship week getting their apartments packed up — which is to say nothing about the Chicago Red Stars, who were on the road for several days. This means secondary sources of income, where necessary, will no longer be limited to the few months a player is in market. And looking bigger picture, players who remain in market during the offseason could and should provide some sort of a bridge to fans who often become disconnected with their NWSL clubs without matches.

Clubs can now pay or receive transfer fees from outside leagues, though that particular market is something that will likely need to grow globally and not just by decree from the NWSL.

What are the drawbacks?

Like all good ideas, this one has a few red flags. One of them is that players who are subsidized by U.S. Soccer will not be eligible to be paid with allocation money and will likely no longer be the highest paid players in the NWSL. I would imagine there are some subsidized players who are less than thrilled about that, but also that it will be a small issue, if any. More interesting will be the future of U.S. Soccer and the Canada Soccer Association paying some league salaries. This was considered a stroke of genius in 2012 and vital in the formation and sustainability of the league at its outset.

Lingering questions from the NWSL’s cash injection: What about USWNT players?

But will the next wave of U.S. national team regulars balk at being subsidized in order to earn more money via the allocation money option? Current rules stipulate that players who turn down NWSL contracts from U.S. Soccer may not receive allocation money. But there is nothing stopping them from going overseas and then re-entering the league that way. Long-term, could players retire early from the national team to focus on what could be lucrative careers at the club level?

There always needed to be an endgame to the subsidy rules, but no one ever wanted to speak about it. They still don’t, but perhaps this is the start of it.

The league also laid out specific criteria for players to be eligible to receive allocation money. Some of them revolve around year-end awards or placement on the Best XI and Second XI teams — and that is a big problem.

Players share discontent with NWSL Best XI process

This year’s XIs and some of the awards have been too far off base for that provision to be taken lightly. And if players’ financial futures are tied to them, it is vital the league clean up the voting process and become more transparent with results. That probably means taking the fan vote completely out of the equation. The question, is why did the league — unless that stipulation was literally proposed and adopted on Monday — allow this year’s voting to go so far astray?

Sam Kerr & Friends

The new compensation rules were greeted with the rather unfortunate timing on the news that Sam Kerr had informed the Red Stars that she does not intend to return in 2020. Though neither the Red Stars nor Kerr have commented officially on this, the news does not come as much of a surprise to anyone. At 26, Kerr has done everything imaginable in the NWSL besides winning a championship. Perhaps she’ll be back some day.

It’s unfortunate that the league lost Kerr on the very day which it implemented rules to keep players like her, but it’s by no means a crushing blow. It is, however, important that some teams use their allocation money to add talent to the NWSL sooner rather than later. That doesn’t mean all nine teams need to go out and spend it all. It means that to make the idea viable, it needs to be used. And it needs to be used not only to show that the owners are serious about investing, but that top players around the world are taking the NWSL seriously.

How an era ended: The mysterious final months of the Boston Breakers

I’ll skip the listing of top targets. I’m sure everyone has their own ideas about which players they would like to see in the league. And everyone knows what teams are most likely to be first in the pool. But if we get to opening day and Sam Kerr is in Europe with no player of any significance here in her place, that could be a problem.

What else is going on?

We’re still waiting on the final pen-to-paper with Sacramento, who would begin play as a 2020 expansion side — as The Equalizer reported last month. The recently completed re-entry wire featured the biggest names ever to move by that mechanism, but not much else can be done in terms of roster building without teams being fully in the know about expansion and the rules that will govern it. Several club sources have told The Equalizer in recent weeks that the coaches are planning for an expansion draft.

The NWSL is also in the all-too-familiar position of starting an offseason without an existing television contract. For all the bombast surrounding the A+E deal offering stability on the media rights front, there has been exactly one offseason that began and ended with an existing deal in place. In one sense, when and where games are broadcast isn’t particularly relevant until the season starts. On the other, television partners help dictate the schedule, including start times and placement of playoff games. The sooner that arrangement falls into place, the better a 2020 schedule can look.

Taylor Smith, out all year with a torn ACL, rediscovered herself with Reign FC

There are also three major job searches in motion. Reign FC and Sky Blue FC are in the market for head coaches. And the league is again looking for a commissioner. Whoever that is will be walking into a position with nearly unlimited potential. The path to growth is clearly visible and now that the owners have begun to play their part by pushing the envelope on their investment, the sky’s the limit for the next commissioner.

Free Kicks

— The NWSL Championship was the most-watched NWSL game since the 2016 final. That is due in part to the increased attention on the sport in the wake of the World Cup. It also highlights that the A+E deal that placed games on Lifetime just was not hitting enough of the right people.

— Aubrey Bledsoe said the 2018 Washington Spirit sometimes felt like Groundhog Day. From Bledsoe’s conference call last week ahead of her first camp with the U.S. national team:

“It’s honestly been night and day. The 2019 Washington Spirit, I’m very proud to play for them. I enjoy going to work every morning. I’ve always loved soccer and loved being a keeper but I’ll be honest, there were times last year where it felt like Groundhog Day with us getting beat to the ground on Saturday night. We didn’t score for like 12 or 13 games and I think we just got one goal. It just kind of took the joy out of it, but this year is a complete reversal.

“It was a very professional environment. Lunch was provided and we had a new coaching staff, a large support staff and everyone is very dedicated. Steve (Baldwin, new majority owner) has been open on how he wants to make this the best women’s soccer club in the world. It’s obviously going to take a while to get there but we made some great strides this year. We had a membership to a great gym, a really highly qualified strength and conditioning coach, a new goalkeeper coach. So really everything we needed. Last year it was just trying to make the most of the minimum. This year just made for a really fun environment to be around and made it easier for us to do our job.”

— Joining Bledsoe as uncapped NWSL players called into Vlatko Andonovski’s first camp as national team coach are Imani Dorsey and Midge Purce. Paris Saint-Germain’s Alana Cook, who is also eligible to play for England, was also called in. Of that group, only Purce has been to a prior camp.

— Let’s leave with this teasing tweet from the Cincinnati Enquirer’s FC Cincinnati beat writer:

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