Five Burning Questions For The 2015 NWSL Season
Before the National Women's Soccer League season kicks off Friday, we take a look at the five biggest questions facing the league:
1. Should we worry about the third-year curse?
Year three ended up being the final season of the past two iterations of women's pro soccer leagues in the United States, so can this one survive the curse? In one word: YES. The difference: U.S. Soccer. The federation blessed but never fully supported WUSA or WPS, but NWSL has the benefit of financial backing and support from U.S. Soccer. President Sunil Gulati has put too much time, energy and effort into this league to let it fail. Even with a Women's World Cup right smack in the middle of the season.
2. How will the Women's World Cup affect the league?
With the Women's World Cup less than two months away, the obvious question is how will the absence of World Cup stars from both the United States and abroad affect the league. Sure, having your stars gone for two months will leave a dent on the league -- especially for a roster like Portland's, which could lose about half its team (although if one team is best equipped to deal with that from a promotion and attendance perspective, Portland is the winner).
On the bright side, it's a great opportunity to showcase the new, fresh faces of talent -- but that requires promoting those players and getting their stories out. It's an investment that will cost the league in the short term but will pay off in the long term. Let's hope NWSL is suited (and willing) to make that investment.
You might not get Alex Morgan or Christine Sinclair in Portland, but you get former African player of the year Genoveva "Ayo" Anonma. The Equatorial Guinea forward has been playing in Germany since 2009 (she is currently finishing up at Turbine Potsdam, one of the best teams in Germany and all of Europe) and is the 10th highest goal scorer all time in Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga (no small feat). Anonma joins the Thorns in May. Good timing. They will need her. And my guess is fans will love her.
3. How important is winning the World Cup to the league's future viability?
Huge. We've seen how Americans respond to successful teams. The U.S. women's national team has a large fan base that knows this team, that loves this team, but it has yet to transfer over to consistently strong attendance numbers at the NWSL level (outside of Portland). Yes, that takes time. But it also takes seeping into the mainstream in ways only a World Cup win can do. There is a market for women's soccer in this country. We know that. Now is the time to grab it and keep it.
4. How surprising was the Sydney Leroux trade to Western N.Y.?
It was surprising in that most thought she would be traded to FC Kansas City, where her new husband, Dom Dwyer, plays. From Western New York's side, you can see the necessity of this trade (for at least some offensive star power). With no Abby Wambach (taking off the NWSL season) and no Carli Lloyd (traded to Houston this past fall), the Western New York Flash were left with only one U.S. national team player in Whitney Engen, a defender.
However good Engen is -- and she is an excellent defender -- Western N.Y. just lacked the sauce and sizzle of having Wambach and Lloyd. Cue Leroux. In steps a star U.S. forward, but her popularity does not guarantee results, of course. Leroux is on her third team in three years, with last season being her least productive with five goals in 22 appearances for the Reign (a team that scored at will it seemed). In addition,Leroux has been battling a foot injury and limited time with the U.S. team in the last few months. Can she be that same offensive force we have seen in years past with Western N.Y.? A lot depends on getting healthy, and with a roster devoid of other international star talent, that might be asking too much.
5. Will Abby Wambach wind up playing?
And just in case you missed it, as part of the Leroux deal, Seattle got the rights to Abby Wambach.
Wambach said recently that she will not play in the NWSL this season. She has said she needed a break to be fully rested before the Women's World Cup this summer and that she also wanted to be closer to her wife in Portland. Seattle coach Laura Harvey is saying all the right things -- respecting that Abby needs time off, not pushing her to play, letting Abby set the timeline.
But with Wambach considerably closer to her wife (173 miles versus 2,641 miles), perhaps playing post-Women's World Cup becomes a 2015 option again. Hmmm. Best goal scorer to ever play the game -- I think that would be a welcomed addition. And the Reign could use another offensive option with Leroux in Western N.Y. and Nahomi Kawasumi back with Japanese pro team INAC Kobe.
Let's all agree that no one wants a World Cup in the middle of the NWSL season. Never mind smack in the middle of the season that no women's pro soccer league has been able to get beyond in this country.
But I think there is so much more potential upside with stars born and personalities unleashed, that it is a tradeoff everyone should embrace.
Or at least channel their inner "League of their Own": It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.