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Lisa Baird confirms Sacramento to NWSL in 2022, pushes back on draft criticism

Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos

Sacramento has finally been confirmed as a market joining the National Women’s Soccer League as a 2022 expansion team. That was the word from NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird in Tuesday’s state-of-the-league address which touched on several newsworthy items from Baird.

Sacramento was initially supposed to join the NWSL for the 2020 season. The Equalizer reported in fall 2019 that the parties were close to finalizing. Then things mysteriously went quiet for a long time, even before the pandemic. The Athletic then reported in August that Sacramento was back on as an expansion market, likely for 2022. Since then, most everyone around the NWSL has reassured that Sacramento was indeed joining the league, but the lack of official confirmation — and ongoing promise of it — along with some issues the group is facing on the MLS side of things, created further skepticism. Sacramento has been represented in NWSL board meetings recently, sources have said, but word of missed MLS expansion payments gave further pause.

Baird was unwilling to share much more detail on Tuesday, deferring that task to the group at Sacramento Republic which will own the team. Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez were mentioned by name.

“We’re really pleased to have that market in our league,” Baird said. “As I learned — and spent the last months working with them — the Sacramento market is going to be great for us and soccer.”

The big question is what this all means for other Northern California groups interested in joining the NWSL. The standard territorial rights for a market encompass a 75-mile radius from the team’s base. The Bay Area is well outside of that, but there is some scuttlebutt (but, as of yet, no firm word) that Sacramento wanted that area protected as well.

Draft concerns and pushback

The lack of formally registered players for this year’s NWSL College Draft, in addition to Catarina Macario’s move to Lyon — a trend of top players looking abroad when their only entry point for the NWSL is the draft — has created discussion around some of the existential questions for the NWSL College Draft. Baird pushed back firmly on that narrative on multiple occasions on Tuesday, reiterating that the league is working on further innovation to remain among the best in the world.

“The draft rules that were changed this year were entirely because of the pandemic,” Baird said. She continued: What we need to do is continue to be nimble, flexible and recognize that we compete in a worldwide market. And we’re doing that.”

She mentioned a 10-year plan for competition. The NWSL is going to undergo some major changes soon, including a league rebrand.

U.S. Soccer relationship changes

If you listened to the Kickin’ Back podcast with Baird last month, you already knew that the U.S. Soccer relationship had changed. As I’ve found myself stating a lot today: if you follow along here, you already knew a good amount of today’s news. Here’s what Baird said explicitly on Tuesday”

“U.S. Soccer is no longer the manager of our league. We 10 years where U.S. Soccer was the founder and the manager and was a critical — if not the critical person — establishing the NWSL in its first 10 years. They invested resources, they ensured that we had the right policies going forward and you know on behalf of my owners, we want to thank you as soccer those first 10 years, but they are no longer the manager. That is not an official relationship.

“We have entered a new chapter of our relationship with U.S. Soccer and I’m in continual contact with Will [Wilson] and with Kate Markgraf because we have a mutual interest on building the best women’s soccer league in the world. That’s what this new partnership will be about and we want to continue to lead with initiatives in the areas of performance like continuing to upgrade and [improve] the standards of women’s soccer in the United States with sports science, coaching other things like that, they will continue to invest in our league and we will do so as partners going forward.”

The Equalizer understands that the setup is essentially that U.S. Soccer will continue to financially invest in the NWSL to fund sports science/performance positions on each team’s staff. As a non-profit, U.S. Soccer has to receive some sort of service in return for any investment.

Further expansion plans

Baird didn’t say much new on expansion beyond the Sacramento announcement. Again, she addressed this in detail on the Kickin’ Back pod:

“I have to say that I’ve been delighted with the people that have reached out to me to express their interest, which is great and not something that we take for granted. I don’t know if the number [of teams] is 14, if it’s 16, but it’s not a lot. Our goal — and you can talk to any owner in the league — we are completely harmonized on our goal, which is that we want to continue to be the best women’s soccer league in the world. And that requires us to have the best players, the best facilities, the best high-performance training, the best coaches. So, when you look at that, you want to be very, very methodical about what your future expansion is — and where. The market choice is the really interesting one…”

“I like the idea that we can create innovative road paths, so it’s not just a formula. Where we’ll go next, it will just be guided by making sure that the best players come into our league, that we keep the standard strong. And that requires investing in the core operations that will enable us to do that.”

NWSL Challenge Cup

As of now, the plan is to play the April Challenge Cup in home markets. Conducting another bubble environment is the backup option, Baird says. Whether or not the Challenge Cup continues on again past 2021 remains to be seen.

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