A major moment for women's soccer in the United States happened late Wednesday night, but you'd be forgiven if you missed it. Between the social media stories doused in champagne, the parade, the TV appearances, the social media stories doused in champagne, the equal pay speeches and pleas and the social media stories doused in champagne, there has been a lot to consume since the U.S. women beat the Netherlands Sunday to win their fourth Women's World Cup title.
Following the ticker tape parade and rally in New York, the U.S. women flew across the country to Los Angeles for the ESPYs, where they won the night's final honor for best team and where Alex Morgan won the honor for best female athlete. And it was in Morgan's speech that the major chord was struck.
She thanked her teammates and husband Servando Carrasco, which is to be expected. She thanked ESPN for the award, like any actor would thank the Academy. But she took it a step further, to address the rightsholder's new TV deal with the NWSL, which, however permament it may be given it's only for the second half of the current season as of now, is a step forward for a league in need of an external boost.
"Thank you for investing in the NWSL," Morgan said. "We obviously enjoyed the success on the biggest stage, right now, but when the World Cup is behind us, it is the professional league that we need to continually lift up and grow. Investment in women and girls should not only occur on the playing fields, but in more storytelling of badass, amazing women, who continue to show that we are more than just athletes."
That's big for the NWSL, to have arguably the league's most recognizable star provide that mainstream exposure on a program televised by ESPN and ABC (with clips tweeted by an account with 34 million followers) all in a room filled with world-class athletes and influential executives and celebrities. The league has its charm and it has plenty of flaws. It's propped up by U.S. Soccer and every player on the U.S. World Cup roster plays for an NWSL club. The federation goes to lengths to make that the case, with tricky dynamics in play as leagues overseas gain steam and increase in quality. In cities like Portland, for instance, NWSL thrives, but that's far from the case everywhere.
You wouldn't be faulted for wondering if, in the past, not all players thought too highly of it. The conditions vary from club to club, and club form hasn't seemed to matter much when it comes to getting called into the national team, so turning out–or doing so full-throttle–hasn't always needed to be a priority. Weeks went by in 2015 before players returned to their NWSL clubs after the Women's World Cup, and even then, the victory tour that followed took players away from their clubs in the heart of the season's home stretch. That's bound to happen again, though the tour involves half as many games as it did four years ago.
In all of the calls for improved pay for the national team, there are hundreds of NWSL players who aren't necessarily going to be part of that, and they provide the backbone of the league. Did you realize they had been playing on through the Women's World Cup, while their more accomplished teammates basked in the limelight—and social media stories doused in champagne? As is the case in plenty of organizations, the bricks that make up the foundation often get overlooked for the more eye-catching elements above ground.
It's on everyone involved to take the league a step further, to create an even more stable foundation that allows it to build and provide the accommodations necessary so that all players can earn living wages, don't have to live with Jeff van Gundy, don't have to worry if there will be a next year and can focus on doing what they want to do—showcasing their badassery. The ESPN TV deal and recent Budweiser sponsorship announcement are steps in the right direction. Attracting fans more regularly to their games is another. The league's presence at the parade on Wednesday was notable, as was Morgan's use of a very public forum. So as the World Cup gets put in the rear view, here's a closer look at the national team's ties to NWSL and how, if you were captivated by the U.S. and other teams in France, you can keep tuning in—whether it's on ESPN's networks, Yahoo's streams or however you choose to consume the content.
Chicago Red Stars
Current record: 4-5-2, 14 points, sixth place
U.S. players: Morgan Brian, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher
In addition to the World Cup winners, the Red Stars feature Sam Kerr, who immediately returned to league play after Australia's elimination and responded with a hat trick. There are also three players who weren't quite part of this U.S. team but could feature heavily in the 2023 cycle: Defender Casey Short, midfielder Danielle Colaprico and forward Savannah McCaskill.
Current record: 3-4-4, 13 points, seventh place
U.S. players: None
No U.S. players in France are part of the Dash, though goalkeeper Jane Campbell figures to have every chance at working her way into the picture for the coming cycle. Fringe national team players Sofia Huerta and Kealia Ohai also feature for Houston, as do England forward Rachel Daly, Australia forward Kyah Simon and Canada midfielder Sophie Schmidt.
North Carolina Courage
Current record: 5-2-4, 19 points, second place
U.S. players: Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Sam Mewis
The reigning league champions have it all. There are the vital World Cup contributors for the U.S. There are the players that narrowly missed out on France in McCall Zerboni, Merritt Mathias, Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle (though the latter's case is a bit more complex). There's U.S. legend Heather O'Reilly, who is retiring at the end of the season. And then there are internationals like Canada goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, New Zealand defender Abby Erceg and Brazil midfielder Debinha. Oh, and you can also witness Dunn in her element, playing in the attack and creating goals instead of impressively preventing them in her makeshift national team role.
Current record: 2-8-2, 8 points, eighth place
U.S. players: Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan
This is a team that needs its U.S. talent back and playing at 100%. Despite some of the stars on the squad, the play on the field has been sorely lacking. Marta has returned after setting the all-time World Cup scoring record and making an impassioned plea to the next generation of Brazilian women, and she's joined by Australians Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond and Canadian Shelina Zadorsky.
Also, Pride, please hand the keys to Harris for a social media takeover, even for just a couple hours.
Current record: 5-2-4, 19 points, third place
U.S. players: Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett
Franch is the two-time reigning NWSL goalkeeper of the year, Horan is the reigning league MVP and the Thorns draw, by far, the biggest crowds in the league on a regular basis. There isn't a team and city from the top down more committed to its NWSL product. In addition to the bevy of U.S. talent, the Thorns feature Canadian legend Christine Sinclair, Australian forward Caitlin Foord and 2015 World Cup-winning defender Meghan Klingenberg. On top of that, there's the club's ties to 13-year-old prodigy Olivia Moultrie.
Seattle Reign FC
Current record: 5-1-5, 20 points, first place
U.S. players: Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe
As if seeing what Rapinoe does for an encore isn't enough of a draw, the side coached by two-time NWSL winner Vlatko Andonovski is soaring. The serious knee injury to Welsh veteran Jess Fishlock is a setback, but Reign FC remains a contender at the top of the table.
Sky Blue FC
Current record: 1-7-2, 5 points, ninth place
U.S. players: Carli Lloyd
The club has become synonymous with seedy headlines and has had many a promising prospect choose overseas alternatives instead of suiting up in New Jersey, but steps have started to be taken to improve the club's playing conditions. Lloyd is always going to be worth the price of admission, especially if she's focused on securing one of the 18 tickets to Tokyo for next summer's Olympics. The club also signed veteran defender Gina Lewandowski from Bayern Munich prior to the World Cup, another player charged with trying to lift the club off the bottom of the table.
Current record: 5-3-2, 17 points, fifth place
U.S. players: Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn
This side should benefit mightily from the return of its U.S. talent, though it must have watched the final with angst as both O'Hara and Sauerbrunn went down with head injuries. With accomplished manager Laura Harvey at the helm, Utah has managed to stem the tide. Among the other stars featuring for the club are former U.S. forward Amy Rodriguez, Spanish midfielder Veronica Boquete and Canadian midfielder Desiree Scott.
Current record: 5-3-3, 18 points, fourth place
U.S. players: Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh
The future of the national team resides in the nation's capital (well, a few miles north in Maryland). Lavelle and Pugh figure to become an even bigger part of the nucleus building toward 2023, and midfielder Andi Sullivan, one of the final cuts from the 2019 squad, joins them.