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Oct. 22, 2015 — Whither Year 4 in women’s pro soccer?

Next spring is a critical year for women’s professional soccer in the United States. It is going to be the third year of the current league, the National Women’s Soccer League. And when you look at past histories of the last two pro leagues, operations ceased after Year 3.

Unlike the last two iterations, the NWSL is actually growing. The league announced that the Orlando Pride would be the league’s 10th franchise, which puts an interesting period on the history of professional women’s soccer in America. You see, Orlando was supposed to have been one of the original eight teams in the old WUSA, playing under the name Tempest. But that team wound up being relocated to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, and rebadged as Carolina Courage.

The league, being a product of North America, does have different rules from the rest of the world as to how the team roster is filled. Instead of transfer deals, there is an expansion draft taking place Nov. 2, with the team being allowed to find its own talent through discovery and tryouts. Orlando also gets the first overall draft selection this coming winter.

But what is also happening is something rather uncomfortably familiar: players of a certain prestige or possessing a certain degree of marketing power being able to dictate where they play.

Remember the big announcement that the Miami Heat were going to combine Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade — three high-dollar franchise players — on one team? And the fact that James orchestrated much of the player movements during the free-agency period in the summer of 2010?

I feel the same discomfort knowing that Alex Morgan is going to be traded to Orlando, with player and team representatives hammering out the terms of what is rumored to be what is likely to be women’s sports first megatrade. As many as three or four other players’ destinies are intertwined in this one transaction, which is being done because Morgan’s husband, Servando Carrasco, plays for Orlando City in Major League Soccer.

Which, of course, begs the question: if Carrasco is signed by Arsenal, would Morgan be keen on joining the Arsenal Ladies Football Club, which plays slap out in Borehamwood, in a stadium that seats barely 600?

And the same goes for coaches. The Portland Thorns basically whisked Mark Parsons away from the Washington Spirit hours after his contract was up, then the Spirit was able to convince Jim Gabarra, the head coach of Sky Blue FC, to resign and replace Parsons.

These kinds of quick coaching changes are unheard of in men’s sports unless a team had a poor season or underachieved in some way. Yet, the owners of the teams didn’t put up much of a fight or request compensation for their trouble.

I’ve seen this movie before; in WUSA, the 20 members of the 1999 Women’s World Cup team were the owners of the league, and were always announced last as a “League Founding Player.”

And during the days of WPS, Brazilian star Marta bankrupted two of the league’s franchises (Los Angeles Sol and FC Gold Pride) with the reported half-million-dollar annual salary she commanded.

Now, I’ll be interested to see what happens this coming spring. The product on the field is being stretched in 10 different directions. In addition, many U.S. women’s national team players will once again be away for large parts of the season because of the Rio Olympics. Lauren Holliday, Lory Chalupny, and Shannon Boxx have already decided to retire, and there will be much speculation in the upcoming months as to whether Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone will do the same.

I think there is going to have to be a lot of work done in the next five months to convince more corporations to tie their product to the league. If you look at the pitchside ad boards, the advertisers aren’t well recognized; mostly local companies. The same can be said for the kit sponsors, which have only a few recognizable national brand names.

But I think the long-term growth of the league will be measured in where the next expansion takes place. Much of the talk is about Canada and California, which both would serve the game well.

And, frankly, would be much overdue.


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