U.S. players finding Australia's W-League a valuable stop
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Any number of motivational memes and messages tell you that there are no shortcuts to success. They nevertheless rarely specify anything about the 15-hour flights.
Before she became a fixture in the back line for the United States women's national team in recent months, a presumptive starter in next summer's World Cup, Abby Dahlkemper was just another passenger trying to make the best of a long flight from California to Australia.
Even by the standards of frequent flyers like professional soccer players, it's an endurance test.
"It's pretty crazy," Dahlkemper said. "But I think when you get past a certain hour, it's just kind of all the same. You just try to sleep and watch movies. It's definitely different. But Australia as a country is just amazing, so I'm thankful I was able to experience that."
Except she wasn't going for the sightseeing. As the United States prepares to meet Australia on Sunday in each team's second game of the Tournament of Nations, the anticipated parity on the field has more than a little to do with flights going in the other direction. Australians are abundant on National Women's Soccer League rosters. The league has been both a showcase for Samantha Kerr's star specifically and a development tool for the Matildas generally. Almost half of Australia's Tournament of Nations roster play in the National Women's Soccer League. Yet it isn't a one-way exchange of resources.
For a substantial number of Americans, the best way to make a case to represent their country on the field is to first travel halfway around the globe. As was the case for Dahlkemper when she played for Adelaide United in the winter of 2015-16, Australia's W-League offers NWSL players effectively a bonus season.
While recent European stays of varying length by American stars like Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Christen Press garnered the most attention, the W-League and its four-month season running from November to February is the more common home away from home for Americans once the NWSL season comes to a close each year. The W-League's nine teams made use of more than 20 Americans this past season.
"They get to come over, they get to play some footy, some of them are fortunate enough to live in cities surrounded by beaches and we have great cafes and coffee," said Australia's Emily van Egmond, currently of the NWSL's Orlando Pride and who spent the winter with the W-League's Newcastle Jets. "It's also a good time for them to somewhat wind down, but at the same time, I think our league is starting to get better every year. To have an opportunity to play football year round is obviously what you want. ... It's a good feed in for the preseason going into the NWSL."
Dahlkemper and fellow defender Emily Sonnett are the most recent W-League alums on the U.S. roster for the Tournament of Nations (Megan Rapinoe also had a two-game cameo with Sydney FC in the league's early days in 2011). But Australia has also been the destination for a number of young players who have either been on the U.S. roster in the past two years or could be close to invites, including Arin Gilliland, Ashley Hatch, Sofia Huerta and Carson Pickett.
In other words, the W-League isn't a place for prestige signings. For one thing, even with the gains made in part through the activism of the Matildas and a minimum league salary of $10,000, there isn't any more money to splash around in Australia than there is in the NWSL. But in a league already known for incorporating young players, like 16-year-old current Australian national team member Amy Sayer, it is a natural developmental environment.
It's why the now 24-year-old Sonnett, an alternate on the U.S. Olympic roster in 2016 who saw her time with the national team dwindle the following year, made the long trip this past winter after the NWSL season.
"I chose to go to the W-League to get games and stay on top of fitness, get touches, be in a team environment," Sonnett said. "I think seeing Abby Dahlkemper a couple of seasons before, and Sofia Huerta, and how they came into the NWSL and had that extra platform to bounce off of and had really good NWSL seasons, I thought the same [for herself].
"I thought it put me in a way better place than training on my own before, being in a team environment going into the NWSL season."
Without suggesting it's entirely cause and effect, Sonnett has reestablished herself for the United States, a versatile defender who has started three times in 2018 and can play anywhere on a back line.
At an interesting moment in Australian women's soccer, with crowds of more than 30,000 at recent national team games and Manchester City's not-insubstantial investment in the W-League's Melbourne City, the presence of so many talented and often young American players is both a boost to the league and a nod to its rising status.
"It means our league is at a good level," Australia national team coach Alen Stajcic said. "I think there is probably a little bit more depth in each NWSL team, from maybe player 13 through to 20. But certainly the top 10, there's not much difference. That means any young player, and we do have a lot of young players in our league, they get to come into a good environment and play some good matches."
Asked before the opening game in Tournament of Nations about the general pros and cons of players venturing abroad or staying close to home in domestic leagues, U.S. coach Jill Ellis said it often came down to the quality of the league in question. The implicit takeaway was the NWSL offers a sufficiently high level of play to keep players close to home. But it also comes with a shorter season than many European teams, especially those top-end teams that play deep into the Champions League -- the Lyon team already playing preseason games in the United States finished its most recent season by beating PSG in the French Cup barely 50 days ago.
Those dead months when American players are often on their own to train is a frequent source of concern, cited by Morgan, among others, as one of the reasons she ventured abroad. Australia offers an alternative -- maybe not over and over again but for a season or two.
In the long run, it would be a sign of good health for the women's professional game if the two leagues no longer sync quite so comfortably, if one or both has the financial incentive to lengthen its season. But for the time being, the symbiotic relationship is so strong that Sonnett found an Australian cafe in Portland, her NWSL home, that served vegemite -- the famous or infamous Australian staple. And yes, she sampled it.
"I love salty, so it was fine, but a lot of people don't like it -- even some of the Australians," Sonnett said. "I wouldn't buy it, but I've had it."
There are truly no shortcuts.