The National Women’s Soccer League is eying an eventful season.
The focus is already on the women’s game because of the World Cup that starts in June. Many of the top players in the league are culled from the national teams of the United States, Mexico and Canada, which are all playing in the sport’s premier event.
That gives new commissioner Jeff Plush quite a backdrop for a couple of big moves that are likely on the horizon: Heading into its third season the league is looking at expansion as well as a national television deal. Both prospects could help solidify the NWSL’s viability moving forward.
It all kicks off Friday night when the Houston Dash host the Washington Spirit.
Plush, who took over some three months ago after founding commissioner Cheryl Bailey stepped down, is meeting with the league’s board in Houston before the opener.
While there are lots of rumors about possible expansion, Plush said nothing has been decided and there is no timetable.
“It’s all about having the right owners around the table, in the right markets, the right venues, committed to our game, passionate about our game,” Plush said this week in a conference call with reporters. “So rather than a timetable dictating it, it’s more about making sure the right people are involved and the right strategy.”
Likewise, a possible multi-year broadcast deal doesn’t have a firm timetable, although Plush said he anticipates it will likely be for the second half of the season after the World Cup. The league’s games are also streamed live on YouTube.
Here are some other things to look for this season in the NWSL:
FINDING BALANCE: Because many of the league’s players will be popping in and out for national team duty in advance of the World, coaches are challenged in developing cohesive lineups.
The NWSL will take a two-week break during the World Cup, but national team players will be gone all for all of June and into July.
“I think all of the teams in the league have faced some of the same issues. As coaches go, we want to control everything, and obviously in a World Cup year that’s been difficult for all the teams — not having all their players in,” Houston coach Randy Waldrum said. “I think in spite of that and understanding the importance of the World Cup to the league and to the women’s game in general, I think I’m pretty happy with where things are headed.”
BIG TRADE: Veteran forward Abby Wambach decided this season to focus on preparing for the World Cup rather than play for her club team, the Western New York Flash. But it was something of a surprise when the Flash traded Wambach to the Seattle Reign in exchange for fellow national team player Sydney Leroux.
No one was as surprised as Leroux, who told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle that she was upset about how the trade was handled.
Leroux said she asked the Reign if a possible move to FC Kansas City could be made, because she married Sporting KC player Dom Dwyer earlier this year. Barring that, she was happy to stay in Seattle, where her mother lives.
“I did not know that I was being put on the trading block,” she told the newspaper.
The Flash open at the Reign on Sunday.
OTHER CHANGES: In addition to the World Cup break, the NWSL teams will play fewer games this season, down from 24 to 20. The calendar has also been stretched out, with the championship match set for late September rather than late August. The changes were not made just because of the World Cup, the league wanted to cut down on weeknight games, which attract smaller crowds.
PITCHING IN: The Dash, an expansion team last season, have been somewhat disappointed with ticket sales in the preseason — even though the squad is loaded with national team stars including Carli Lloyd, Meghan Klingenberg, rookie Morgan Brian and Irish forward Stephanie Roche.
So recently the players pitched in, taking to the phones to drum up interest. Forward Ella Masar was the top seller with $2,500 in tickets sales in two hours.
“I think that’s part of being a pro in this league. We’re not the NFL and we’re not major league baseball. We don’t have all of the resources that those leagues have,” Waldrum said. “I think the players understand, we’re all pitching in and doing our part to promote the league and promote the game.”
TO RECAP: FC Kansas City won the league championship game 2-1 over the Reign, but Seattle dominated the postseason awards. Scottish midfielder Kim Little won the league’s Golden Boot award and MVP with 16 goals and seven assists. Reign coach Laura Harvey was named NWSL coach of the year, and Seattle won the NWSL Shied with a 16-2-6 record.