The biggest storyline in the National Women's Soccer League isn't happening on the field, despite a flurry of playoff jostling over the weekend.
Rather, the NWSL is facing a pivotal change in the boardroom that could change the league's trajectory: U.S. Soccer, the founder and operator of the NWSL, is on the verge walking away from its manager role, allowing the NWSL to become a fully independent operation.
The ramifications of such a decision – which insiders at both the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation mutually want – could be massive. While U.S. Soccer isn't expected to walk away completely and its financial support will continue, the league will attempt to stand on its own feet operationally.
The question is whether the league is ready for it – and there are signs that maybe it isn't.
After all, a team clinching the playoffs is one of the most important things that can happen in a sports league, the moment that months of games build toward. But the NWSL and the Portland Thorns didn't even know that the Thorns clinched a playoff spot on Saturday.
The league tweeted that the Thorns “moved closer” to the postseason after beating the Houston Dash, and both the Thorns’ players and communications reacted to the game as if the playoff hunt continued. Only the next day, after it was pointed out by fans and media, did the Thorns organization correct itself on social media, finally announcing the team earned a postseason berth, while the NWSL said nothing.
The Dash, by the way, got knocked out of playoff contention, but there would've been no way for fans to know that by following official communications.
In years past – back when the NWSL had a communications director – the league would've announced well in advance of games which playoff scenarios were in play. But the league hasn't had anyone managing communications since January. The NWSL did hire a head of marketing who lacked experienced in sports, and she left less than four months on the job. The only apparent dedicated communications staffer in the front office at the moment is a college intern.
The league's struggles to market itself aren't new, but they've seemingly gotten worse at a time when the league is hoping to lean on U.S. Soccer for logistical support less and stand on its own.
Part these hiccups are due to the period of transition the NWSL finds itself in. The league dissolved its partnership with A&E Network, which had created a separate well-staffed marketing arm for the league that has winded down. But the result has been that many expected functions of the NWSL headquarters have slipped through the cracks.
Before the 2019 season began, there was no conference call with the league's president, Amanda Duffy, to generate some easy earned media. (The league hasn't had a commissioner since Jeff Plush left in 2017 but, by all accounts, the commissioner has actually been U.S. Soccer all along.)
When the league brought on Budweiser as a sponsor this year – a very positive development, to be sure – there was no press announcement from the NWSL. Budweiser's public relations handled getting the word out.
When Yahoo Sports requested attendance figures for a positive story about the growth of the NWSL, the league couldn't provide that data.
Issues closer to the players have also been affected by the league's lack of front office leadership. Houston Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell tweeted that the league suggested players should sleep at an airport due to flooding affecting flights in Houston. That, luckily, did not end up happening, but concerns about accommodations for lodging and flights have been a frequent complaint from players.
To be clear, it's not as if the NWSL and its teams are alone in their challenges. FC Dallas, a team that has been in Major League Soccer since 1996, managed to misspell its own name during an on-field display on Sunday.
Ready for the FC Daalas game. 🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/uIaUU6ASil
— Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) September 22, 2019
(FC Dallas, by the way, is averaging fewer than 15,000 fans per game, which is less than the Portland Thorns draw. The Thorns are averaging almost 20,000 fans.)
But these types of snafus are too prevalent in the NWSL. However, it's not as if keeping U.S. Soccer as league manager would solve these problems.
The exit of former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, the chief architect of the NWSL, has meant the federation no longer has anyone invested in running day-to-day operations of the league. Behind closed doors, Gulati was essentially the league's actual commissioner all along and, without him, U.S. Soccer's involvement has been unhelpful since, sources say.
Sources tell Yahoo Sports that U.S. Soccer has been seeking an exit plan for the past two years to relinquish oversight of the NWSL, but the federation hasn't been satisfied with proposals from the NWSL's owners. There were exploratory talks of the United Soccer League absorbing the NWSL into its front office, but those discussions have stalled.
Now the issue is coming to a head with U.S. Soccer's management agreement set to expire at the end of 2019. The previous times the agreement expired, U.S. Soccer renewed it and continued to run the NWSL, but that isn't likely to happen this time.
The federation has committed to providing salaries to U.S. women's national team players in the NWSL through the life is the current CBA, which ends in 2021. But for any additional support, the federation wants a clear plan for the next several years, including commitments for how the NWSL will operate and ensure teams are meeting minimum standards, sources say.
Whether U.S. Soccer is involved or not, that is the key: The NWSL needs to be able to raise its minimum standards and its ability to functionally operate a sports league. That U.S. Soccer is pushing the NWSL to do it in exchange for support is probably more helpful than keeping U.S. Soccer as an absent, uninterested league operator.
But it's on the NWSL to figure out on its own how to do it and, whatever the path forward looks like, the NWSL needs to get moving. After all, it'd be a shame if the NWSL couldn't do anything with the momentum it has now just because there's barely any staff at league headquarters.
The NWSL has seen a nearly 20 percent increase in league-wide attendance this year, and every single team has experienced a boost. While some clubs are still lagging behind, others have made strides in the standards they’re setting for players and fans.
The ambitions are growing for clubs, but expectations for the league headquarters also need to increase. Without a competent, well-staffed front office, the NWSL will never be where it wants to be, whether U.S. Soccer is involved or not.
Kerr breaks her own goal-scoring record
While the playoff picture starts to come into focus, Samantha Kerr is running away with the NWSL Golden Boot – and maybe league MVP, too.
Over the weekend, Kerr scored a brace in a 3-1 win over the Washington Spirit, pushing Kerr's goals on the season to 18, a new single-season goal-scoring record in the NWSL.
— Yahoo Soccer (@FCYahoo) September 22, 2019
Kerr broke her own record, which she set in 2017, and her Chicago Red Stars have one more game next weekend where Kerr can try to extend her record.
It's a good bet that Kerr has made herself the frontrunner for NWSL MVP, as well. Last year was the only time the NWSL Golden Boot winner was not also named the league MVP – Kerr led the league in goals but Lindsey Horan won.
NWSL playoff picture
What a difference a day makes.
Every team other than last-placed Orlando played on Saturday and three of four playoff spots were claimed.
The North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns all clinched spots, and the Courage also secured the NWSL Shield as the team with the best regular season record.
If form means anything at this point in the season, the Courage are the easy favorite to win a second straight NWSL championship.
The Courage have now won six straight, and although their 1-0 win Tuesday over the Houston Dash was a bit too close for comfort, it was also easy to write-off. A Tuesday game is unusual, and the Courage were only on three day's rest. The Dash are also the sort of team that is easy to take lightly, even though the Thorns struggled to get a 1-0 win over them on Saturday.
Meanwhile, three teams are duking it out for the playoff final spot are the Utah Royals, the Seattle Reign and the Washington Spirit. This could be a tight finish to the end – none of these teams are in good form, having each lost over the weekend.
The Royals and Reign, tied at 31 points, have what looks like a decent cushion against the Spirit, on 26 points – but the Spirit have a game in hand, so they have 12 more points up for grabs, compared to the Royals and Reign's nine each.
The Spirit will have to face the Courage in one of those match-ups, but the Courage no longer have anything to play for until the playoffs begin on Oct. 19, and the Spirit can hope the league leaders take it easy.
The right to host a home playoff game is still up for grabs, with the Thorns and the Chicago Red Stars pitted against each other.
NWSL schedule this week (times ET)
Houston Dash vs. Washington Spirit, 9 p.m.
Reign FC vs. Utah Royals, 10 p.m.
Washington Spirit vs. North Carolina Courage, 7 p.m.
Chicago Red Stars vs. Utah Royals, 8 p.m.
Sky Blue vs. Orlando Pride, 11 a.m.
Reign FC vs. Portland Thorns, 2 p.m.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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