The longest-running women’s professional soccer league in the United States is navigating uncharted waters.
Entering its sixth season, the National Women’s Soccer League has been around nearly twice as long as its predecessors, Women’s Professional Soccer and the Women’s United Soccer Association. Both lasted three seasons before folding.
Though the Boston Breakers in January ceased operations, reducing the number of teams in the league from 10 to nine, Orlando Pride players said the league is still in a good place.
The Breakers were the longest-running professional women’s soccer team in the country, so their situation got the attention of players throughout the league.
“It’s unfortunate that Boston folded,” veteran Orlando Pride defender Ali Krieger said. “That’s just a sign that we’re not quite there. We are getting there. Each year is getting better and more professional.”
New Pride player and Canadian national-team member Shelina Zadorsky said there’s room to grow, particularly when it comes to the rights of non-allocated players, but the NWSL is on the right track.
Zadorsky, star forward Alex Morgan and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris all have their salaries subsided by their national team’s federations.
“It’s unfortunate to see things like Boston, especially with players not finding out until the last minute,” Zadorsky said. “Just in terms of player’s rights, I think we have a bit of a way to go, especially non-allocated players, obviously the pay and whatnot.
“But I’m proud to be playing in this league and I know that people want the best for this league and we want it to consistently be the best in the world and I think it takes time to build that strong foundation, but I’m definitely proud of the direction it’s going.”
The season kicks off today on Saturday “and teams will play each other three times for a 24-game schedule.
NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy said during a media conference call she feels the NWSL has a “commitment to the long-term development of this league” from club owners.
There are rumors surrounding feature franchises linked to Major League Soccer clubs. MLS commissioner Don Garber in 2016 told Sports Illustrated he expects half the clubs in the league to eventually launch NWSL sides.
Orlando City SC CEO Alex Leitão echoed that statement during the Pride’s media day.
“I truly believe in the future of this league,” he said. “I truly believe the game is going to grow and the league is going to grow with the game. I’m pretty sure there are going to be a lot of conversations with new teams coming with stronger ownerships in order to move forward with the game and with the league. I’m happy with where we are right now and I’m pretty sure that this league is going to be even better in the next couple of years.
“I would say from my experience, from what I know, the NWSL is the [strongest] women’s professional league in this country.”
Four of the nine clubs in the NWSL are affiliated with MLS sides — the Pride, the Portland Thorns, Utah Royals FC and the Houston Dash. Krieger said when the NWSL adds more teams, they should be affiliated with MLS clubs, at least for now.
Krieger has been playing in the NWSL since its inaugural season.
Last year, the top three teams in the league in terms of average attendance were the ones affiliated with MLS clubs.
Portland’s average attendance last season was 17,653 fans per game, higher than the average attendance of six MLS clubs. The Orlando Pride, who play their games in Orlando City Stadium, were second in average attendance (6,186) and the Houston Dash were third (4,578).
Utah Royals FC, affiliated with MLS side Real Salt Lake, is new to the league this season. The club absorbed the player assets of FC Kansas City and will play in the 20,213-seat Rio Tinto Stadium.
“There’s more teams, especially on the men’s side, that really want to be involved,” Krieger said. “I think women’s teams that join should be paired with an MLS team. You have automatic fans. You have support. You have everything kind of set up already and I think that’s what really helpful for us in the league.
“Obviously, it would be great not to be affiliated and kind of be on our own and survive on our own, but we’re not yet there.”