If you do not know much about the National Women’s Soccer League (“NWSL”) or the Houston Dash, you are not alone. In the lead up to the inaugural match for the Dash this Saturday against the Portland Thorns, House of Houston will be providing an overview of the league, the team and spotlighting several players to help fans new to the sport and the team to get up to speed.
In this article, we provide a background on the development of NWSL. Read Part I of the series, an overview of the pre-cursors to NWSL here.
Following the decision to fold the WPS, the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) held a roundtable to discuss the future of women’s professional soccer in this country. A variety of stakeholders participated, including USSF representatives, representatives from both the W-League and WPSL as well as teams from WPS.
As an outcome of the roundtable discussions, a plan formed to start a new league launching in 2013 consisting of 12-16 teams including three from each of W-League, WPSL and WPS.
By the end of 2012, plans were revised to start with 8 teams including a number of familiar names from past incarnations: Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns FC, Seattle Reign FC, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash.
After the failure of two professional women’s leagues, the obvious question was why the NWSL would be any different. A few key factors provided NWSL with a stronger starting point as the league incorporated lessons learned from WUSA and WPS struggles:
- Support of the North American Soccer Federations: USSF, the Canadian Soccer Association (“CSA”) and the Mexican Football Federation (“FMF”) committed to encourage the participation of their national team players and to pay for those players (24 from the US, 16 from Canada and 12-16 from Mexico). This removed significant expense from the books of NWSL and its teams; previously the league and its investors paid for these players. Moreover, USSF committed to funding the costs associated with the league front office.
- Consistent with Federation participation keeping costs down, team salary caps (excluding Federation allocated players who do not count against the cap) were limited to a reported $200,000 per club. Spending will not get out of control as happened with WUSA and WPS.
- A new generation of US National Team stars such as Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and and Megan Rapinoe has increased the buzz around women’s professional soccer.
- The inclusion of experienced people: from the front office staff to four of the initial eight owners having been owners in WPS, there has been continuity as well as the knowledge gained from past efforts incorporated into the NWSL approach.
- The rapid growth of Major League Soccer has helped carve out a larger market for soccer. Moreover, partnership with MLS in the form of Portland Timbers owning Portland Thorns, and now the Houston Dynamo owning the Houston Dash makes for better facilities, better front offices and stronger franchises.
The eight franchises were originally each allocated up to three US national team players, two Mexican national team players and two Canadian players. The remaining roster spots (teams had to have a minimum of 18 players on the roster and a maximum of 20) were filled through three available international slots per team, a limited free agency period, a College Draft, a Supplemental Draft and a Preseason Waiver Draft.
The low salary cap and general efforts towards cost control meant low salaries for players, sparking concerns that many players would opt to play or remain in Europe where leagues are growing and perhaps better salaries are available. The opposite has been true, however.
It has been said that female soccer players are amongst the most committed to growing the sport; consistent with that concept the majority of key American players are now playing in NWSL or will return during this upcoming season. The players understand that making the sport sustainable means lower keeping costs under control.
In order for to players survive financially, teams have organized home stay opportunities for players and many have taken second jobs. Here in Houston, the Dash reached out through the local youth soccer community to place players with host families.
Teams have three international slots for players who do not have citizenship or a green card (excluding national team allocated players). Both international players and domestic players who are not already signed by the league can be signed as a “Discovery Player”. To sign such a player, teams must add that player to their “Discovery List”. The team makes a request to the league , if approved the player will be added to the list. Teams can sign up to 10 Discovery Players per year.
There is a disabled list (minimum 45 days) and a season ending injury list that players can be placed on when injured, allowing teams to field replacement players. In addition, there is an amateur call-up rule that allows teams to bring in a US amateur player to replace a National Team Player being called up for a National Team match. These mechanisms provide teams with the flexibility to field full strength sides all season long despite the relatively small 18-20 player roster size.
The 2013 NWSL inaugural season consisted of 22 games and a single table format. Each team played three other teams four times each, two teams two times each and two teams three times each.
At the end of the season, the top 4 teams points-wise in the table advanced to the playoffs. In the semi-finals, 1st place played 4th place and 2nd place played 3rd place in a single game playoff. The winners advanced to a single game final.
For 2014, the table and playoff structure remain the same while the number of games played by each team has expanded 24. Each team will play four teams twice at home and once away and the other four teams once at home and twice away.
In the inaugural season, matches were streamed online by each team with a wide range of quality. Mid-season, Fox signed up to broadcast six regular season matches and the three playoff matches.
For 2014, the league has announced that all games will be streamed for free through YouTube in HD quality. According to Commissioner Cheryl Bailey, some form of TV contract will be announced within the next few weeks. The Dash will broadcast all of their home matches over CSN Houston.
Tomorrow in Part III we will look at the results of the first NWSL season and highlight teams and players to watch in this upcoming second season.