The realities of growing an American soccer league don’t faze the National Women’s Soccer League’s new commissioner, Jeff Plush.
As managing director of the Colorado Rapids and member of Major League Soccer’s Board of Governors, he oversaw what he calls “a pretty interesting period of time” for six years in the mid-2000s. Plush joined MLS in 2006, just after its first expansion in seven seasons and after the two original Florida franchises folded to stop the league hemorrhaging money. Now, the men’s league is stable as a business, and Plush turns his attention to his first season as NWSL commissioner.
“It’s been busy and certainly a whirlwind, going to all the different markets and meeting everyone, but it only gives me that much more excitement for the season to finally start,” he told SI.com in a phone interview last week.
The NWSL enters its third season in better shape than its two predecessors, thanks largely to the American, Mexican and Canadian federations subsidizing allocated players. League sponsors have also increased their support, and Plush said a new television deal is imminent.
However, after the third season, nobody knows what happens for women’s professional soccer in the United States.
No professional league has made it to a fourth year, but that doesn’t seem to weigh on Plush’s mind at all.
He speaks mostly about the future—about expansion, an undisputed sign of health in American sports leagues, and improving the product on the field through player development initiatives that only come, presumably, when that future isn’t in question.
“The exciting thing is, there are those conversations happening already,” he said. “We are already speaking at the league level and at the board level about how we coalesce around a strategy that we can all support and be excited about.”
NWSL attendance should increase following a Women’s World Cup on the continent, but some of the league’s players decided not to play and focus on national-team commitments instead.
Mexico’s allocated quartet won’t return to their teams until after the Pan-America Games following the World Cup at the earliest, and it’s up to individual players if they will play at all in 2015.
Chief among those who won’t play is U.S. forward and 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach. Plush said the league isn’t in a place to make demands of its players just yet, considering the support their federations provide.
“It’s part of the nuance of our league today,” he said. “It’s part of creating a sustainable league. I think it’s our job over the next number of years to make our league vibrant, sustainable and create an environment where players want to play in our league all the time. … I don’t view it as a negative thing. I just view it as a part of our evolution of a women’s professional league, and we have to find the right path forward.”
Plush said he understands Wambach’s decision.
“We certainly support Abby and what she’s trying to do. Certainly, the best thing that could happen is if Abby leads the U.S. to a successful World Cup—that’s all very positive for our league,” he said. “Are we a better league with Abby in it? Of course we are, but players come to points in their careers where they have to make choices, and where careers do start to wind down. We’re a league of 180 players and nine clubs and lots of different storylines. She’ll always be a special part of that, but there are other things to get excited about going forward.”
Of those 180 available roster slots (20 on each team’s active squad) teams are allowed three tradable international spots. So far, the league’s efforts have focused on maximizing exposure for the home federations’ players.
American and Canadian players overwhelmingly comprise the NWSL’s player pool, but the league should still see an attendance bump this summer.
“All eyes of the soccer-viewing population will be focused on the Women’s World Cup, and it’s our opportunity and responsibility to capture that,” Plush said. “Importantly, I want us to realize it’s not a one-off situation. We’re going to have the World Cup every four years; we’re going to have the Olympics every four years. There are other marquee soccer events. We can take advantage of them.”
As it expands to more markets, Plush said the NWSL must grow to fill them with the best players possible, including a relaxation of regulations on importing players. Still, when three federations have essentially bankrolled the league to this point, it’s tricky to balance the need to improve with a desire to avoid undermining them.
“We know we also have a responsibility to put a product out there that our consumers are excited to engage with. It’s an ongoing debate,” he said. “Being only in the third year, there’s still more to be done and more to learn, but those are the kinds of conversations you want to be having about players, about player development and how to make your product better.”
Technical and competition committees frequently discuss impending player development practices, and Plush said, “Certain clubs are already further along that development continuum.” He said he expects new policies in that area by the end of the 2015 season.
“When you get to the point where you have young girls aspiring to play not just professionally, but play professionally in their market, that’s an exciting development and one that will really act as an accelerant toward the long-term growth of our league,” he said.
MLS requires its teams join the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. However, only the Boston Breakers participate in the Elite Clubs National League, the equivalent youth league on the women’s side.
Including and beyond the realm of player development, though, Plush said the NWSL doesn’t want to simply imitate MLS. Despite two NWSL franchises operated by MLS teams, the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash, it won’t simply be an offshoot of the men’s league.
“We’ve got seven clubs that are not owned by MLS clubs, and we have lots of interest from expansion cities—some that are MLS and some that aren’t,” he said. “So I think we’ll probably end up charting our own path over time, but it would be one that would be borne out of a knowledge of what other people, specifically MLS, have done in front of us and how they’ve learned from that.”
Despite approaching the ominous three-year milestone, the NWSL won’t cling to other leagues for survival strategies. Remembering past mistakes of all soccer ventures is never a bad idea, but the new commissioner shows no fear.
Rather, his excitement and confidence give the impression of a league on the rise that will punch through the difficult moments that past attempts could not. Players taking time off, others retiring to take other, higher-paying jobs — these will soon be past problems, if Plush’s beliefs are realized.
“I’m excited about where we’re going as a league,” Plush said. “It’s all very positive, but we certainly have lots of hard work in front of us.”