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2023 Women's World Cup

Inside the NWSL’s conflict with FIFA dates, and why a global calendar crisis could be looming

After initially refusing, the NWSL will release players outside FIFA windows through the World Cup. The struggle is indicative of a wider issue as the pro and international game seek harmony.

Illustration by Bella Munson

United States women’s national team players will report to Orlando on Monday for an extended training camp ahead of the SheBelieves Cup. That was always the plan, but at one point, their arrival date was in serious question — at least as far as the National Women’s Soccer League was concerned.

What happened, and the eventual short-term solutions, speak to a need for long-term answers in the growing women’s soccer landscape. The sport’s evolving dynamics include a push and pull between club and international duties, and a lack of clarity in what the long-term FIFA international calendar looks like. There are also ongoing promises of new or more regular competitions from all parties. Domestically, the relationship between U.S. Soccer and the NWSL continues to evolve from its previous, more rigid state.

The Equalizer spoke with 11 different sources across the women’s soccer landscape for this story.

On Jan. 18, the NWSL — which collectively makes decisions through a board of governors led by commissioner Jessica Berman — communicated to teams and players that players would no longer be released to their federations outside of FIFA windows. That is the international standard, but it is not how the NWSL has historically operated since it kicked off in 2013.

Extensive dialogue over the past month included divided opinions throughout the NWSL on how strict the league should be about FIFA windows in a World Cup year. Those discussions led to the initial decision from Berman and the NWSL to strictly enforce both the February 2023 window — which officially begins on Feb. 13, just after the league’s preseason began — and to this summer’s World Cup. The World Cup begins on July 20 in New Zealand and Australia, and the period blocked by FIFA for players to be available to national teams begins on July 10.

Ramifications of that decision were felt beyond the United States. Teams globally — including the United States and Canada — had already planned for extended training camps during both windows. Brazil, which will also participate in the SheBelieves Cup this month, has a handful of national team regulars in the NWSL. FIFA’s global playoff for the final three World Cup berths is also this month, and some NWSL players are involved. 

International players pushed back on the NWSL’s Jan. 18 directive, to the point that multiple U.S. players joined a formal meeting with club and league representatives to explain the necessity of the extra time needed for World Cup preparations, according to multiple sources. Following that meeting, the NWSL realized that it was too late to enforce changes for 2023, after so many national team programs had already scheduled training camps and games through the World Cup.

Ten days after ordering NWSL clubs not to release players outside of FIFA windows, Berman, in league communications obtained by The Equalizer, granted the release of all international players in the NWSL on Feb. 6, which is the date stipulated in the United States women’s national team’s collective bargaining agreement. Berman also informed teams that players of all nationalities will be released for World Cup duties on June 26, one week earlier than originally planned. The NWSL will enforce the FIFA window in April (3-11), which is the only other international break before the World Cup.

New NWSL chief sporting director Tatjana Haenni was involved in the conversations and process and provided the following statement to The Equalizer:

“We’ve worked with the players associations and the various national federations to finalize our plans for 2023 as it relates to releasing national team players for international duty, including outside of FIFA windows in limited circumstances. We’ve agreed to do that and to continue the dialogue as we think about 2024 and beyond. Everyone wants the same thing – to continue to develop and grow the game. The question is how to best accomplish that goal. 

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