The NWSL Hits Its Latest Inflection Point

With three expansion teams on the horizon and independence from U.S. Soccer's management, these are exciting times for the league—but maintaining and attracting top talent as it grows remains a challenge.
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The NWSL has shown, in the last year especially, a remarkable capacity to adapt to circumstances outside its control. The coming years will be all about how it adapts to taking more control of its own circumstances—and how it adjusts to a growing threat as it relates to holding on to top domestic talent.

The biggest change to its circumstances confirmed Tuesday relates to the organizational structure of the league. U.S. Soccer is no longer fully managing the league as it did for its first eight seasons of existence, with NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird relaying that the previous arrangement is no more (though the federation will still be contributing and supporting financially). The league is going out more on its own, the ship untied from the dock and out at sea untethered. Baird said in the coming months the league's owners would be setting "a strategic plan that will set the next decade of growth."

Things had been trending that way before the pandemic, but the drastic detour that 2020 provided pushed that plan of greater independence for a year. Growth was coming one way or another, though, as 2021 brings with it a new club in Louisville and a relocated and temporarily named club in Kansas City (following the investigation into malfeasance at Utah Soccer Holdings, the owner of the Utah Royals). The 2022 season will include the addition of new clubs in Los Angeles and Sacramento, with the latter's arrival confirmed by Baird on Tuesday.

Change and growth are how a league evolves into something greater, but retaining and attracting top talent need to go hand-in-hand with that evolution if it is to truly flourish. That brings us to the matter of Catarina Macario and the continued exodus of top U.S. players to Europe. 

A top national team prospect going abroad is often cause for celebration in U.S. soccer circles, but the men's and women's soccer ecosystems are not exactly apples-to-apples. NWSL's stature in the global women's club landscape and MLS's in the men's scene differ greatly. So while the Philadelphia Union's recent player sales to European clubs, for instance, are cause for celebration and a sign of a job well done by the MLS clubs, Macario's situation is viewed through a different lens.

This isn't a case of a club or league selling for profit in order to reinvest and accelerate development. This is a player choosing her own path elsewhere instead of having one chosen for her here. Had Macario made herself available for Wednesday night's NWSL draft, there's no question that Louisville would've raced to the virtual podium with the first pick ready to go. Such is her talent and anticipated trajectory.

Catarina Macario at USWNT training

Instead, the clear top collegiate prospect and a potential U.S. women's national team cornerstone of the future heads to Lyon, the world's preeminent women's soccer powerhouse. Lyon has won the last five UEFA Women's Champions League titles and seven overall and is littered with world-class talent. In France, Macario will likely get to lift at least half a dozen major trophies over the course of her two-and-a-half-year deal, if Lyon's track record over the course of the last decade is any indication.

These all sound like good things for the player, and the fact that she'll likely earn far more abroad than she could based on NWSL's current salary structure is an additional bonus. Macario herself said Tuesday that the move wasn't about money, but more so about experiencing a new culture at a young age, playing at a club with first-class facilities and accommodations and challenging herself at the highest level in an environment rich with world-class stars.

"I'm not going to be the best player on the field anymore," she said Tuesday from U.S. training camp. "That's what I want. That's how I can become a better player."

The fact that her decision comes as multiple, established senior national team players have gone and continue to go abroad (Abby Dahlkemper is reportedly joining Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle at Manchester City as the latest example, while Tobin Heath and Christen Press remain with Manchester United), only further illuminates NWSL's bubbling talent retention issue and the growing threat from the top flights in England, France, Germany and Spain. Players wanting to stay sharp in an Olympic year while the pandemic hampered the NWSL's schedule is one thing, but it doesn't appear the lure of playing abroad is limited to COVID-19-induced reasons. Top clubs in England's Women's Super League and elsewhere on the continent, beyond Lyon, have deep pockets–the kind that can be quite alluring when compared with the offerings at home. 

Macario isn't the first player to pick Europe over NWSL (nor is she the only would-be 2021 draftee heading abroad; Florida State's Malia Berkely is heading to France as well after signing with Bordeaux). She isn't even the first Stanford player to do so in the last two years, with defender Alana Cook choosing PSG over the NWSL draft in 2019. But missing out on a player of her quality underscores the need to offer enough attractive elements for players like her to stay home while also maintaining financial stability. It's not a fact that has gone unnoticed at league HQ.

"I do know that we need to continue to invest in our players to make sure that we attract and retain the best players in the world," Baird said.

In NWSL's defense, it tried to a degree with Macario. It extended the utility of allocation money—figures that go beyond the salary cap to sign higher-priced talent—so it could be used on the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Reading between the lines, it was a ploy to offer a player like Macario a bit more with the hopes she would stay stateside. That didn't prove to be enough, though, and it should spark a new line of questioning about what it will take to outbid and out-recruit its foreign counterparts.

Another change the league is reportedly making along those lines is that players who would normally be allocated via U.S. Soccer and paid by the federation are now able to go out on their own and be paid directly through clubs via allocation money.

According to The Athletic, that's what Portland is doing to incentivize Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan, and when the U.S. women sign a new CBA, the entire arrangement could be completely different. The calculus is changing on all fronts.

Like with most cases, a player weighing NWSL vs. a club abroad isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. Last year's No. 1 overall pick, for instance, U.S. forward Sophia Smith (and a college teammate of Macario's), said that Europe was on the table for her but she chose NWSL.

"[Going abroad] was an option that I had," she said from U.S. camp on Tuesday. "I had to think about what was best for me at the time. 

"I definitely think the NWSL does a great job of opening its doors to anyone and everyone who has a dream of playing professional soccer."

Macario, for what it's worth, said that she'll play in NWSL at some point in her career.

"I'd love to play [in] the NWSL someday," she said. "I know that will happen. I'm not sure necessarily when, but as an American it's a dream to play where I reside. So I will definitely be coming back."

In June 2023, when Macario's Lyon contract expires, the U.S. will be gearing up for a Women's World Cup three-peat in Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps the homecoming happens afterward, or perhaps she's such a smash hit with Lyon she remains abroad for longer. By that point, NWSL will have at least 12 clubs and be in its 11th season—and ideally have a system in place and an environment at enough clubs where the more attractive choice is the one closer to home.