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Portland Thorns rebuild opens with multi-year Ellie Carpenter deal, signaling change in NWSL rules

The NWSL hasn’t announced new roster rules yet, but Portland’s rebuild offers a glimpse of what’s coming.

The Portland Thorns announced Thursday that the club has signed Ellie Carpenter to a “multi-year contract extension,” which signals big changes ahead for both the Thorns and the National Women’s Soccer League as a whole.

First, there’s the big picture: clubs in the NWSL never had the option of signing players to long-term contracts in the past, and now clubs can start planning for the future. The league has yet to announce it, but Carpenter’s new deal will be possible through “formal changes relative to league rules,” Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson said, which will allow clubs to differently structure contracts and compensate players better.

The league’s old way of retaining players, which was through a series of short-term contracts, prevented clubs from tying up resources years down the line — a conservative approach dictated by the failures of past women’s soccer leagues that overspent and folded quickly. With the NWSL entering its eighth season next year, the NWSL appears ready to take off the training wheels.

But on the local level, locking down Carpenter for the foreseeable future signals a large roster overhaul necessitated by an underwhelming year that saw the Thorns score just one goal in their final six games and stumble out of the playoffs.

One of the key building blocks of the new-look Thorns will be international players, which will be influenced by the new roster rules that have yet to be announced, showing the trickle-down effect of the changes coming to the NWSL.

“Going back through the season and the number of players we carried, there’s a focus on increasing the quality of the foreign spots, making sure that every foreigner that comes in is better than a player that we can acquire domestically,” Wilkinson said. “So, making sure that our foreign spots go back to the Amandine Henry caliber and making sure that we maximize those in every way.”

“The league continues to evolve and I’m sure there will be an evolution of the rules to allow for a greater investment in foreigners,” Wilkinson said. “That will start to benefit every single club that’s willing to invest.”

The NWSL will probably learn from Major League Soccer, which had to find a way to bend its salary cap rules to attract a global superstar like David Beckham, who cost far more than the league’s rules would allow. Now, the NWSL is confronting a similar dilemma when it considers trying to retain a player like Samantha Kerr, who is arguably the best striker in the world and could get paid multiples more if she were to leave the Chicago Red Stars for a club in Europe.

MLS introduced the Designated Player rule to allow clubs to throw bags of cash at stars, and they more recently introduced “targeted allocation money,” which does have a limit, unless DP slots, but allows spending above the salary cap.

As Thorns owner Merritt Paulson said last week: “We’re working on ways to pay players more and go out and retain and attract better players, and retain our position as the top women’s pro league in the world.”

Henry played for the Thorns, in part, because she said she wanted the challenge of competing in the American league, which is considered more physical and faster than the technical play seen in Europe. But the Thorns also had to get creative with the fringe benefits they offered Henry due to the low salary cap. Upcoming changes to NWSL rules will make those sorts of marquee acquisitions easier and more common.

The NWSL currently allows a maximum of four non-Americans per team. With Carpenter sticking around and Wilkinson telling reporters the Thorns could add up to five new starters, there will also have to be some shuffling among the Thorns’ domestic players as well.

“There will be quite a bit of roster turnover,” Wilkinson said. “We still have some of the best players in the world in their key positions, but it’s about starting to increase the caliber of the players and, overall, the group. This is a club and this is a team that needs to be in the championship and contesting for trophies every single year. We need to do what we need to do.”

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