The run-up to the start of the 2023 National Women's Soccer League season is a time for the organization, its teams and its players to take a deep breath. The marathon -- and one that's being sandwiched around the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup -- is about to begin. The preseason preparations have been completed, and the time is now to see the extent to which those will pay off for each of the NWSL's 12 teams.
But the upcoming campaign is also a chance for the players to exhale. Over the course of the past two seasons, the NWSL has been rocked by multiple player abuse scandals that were investigated in excruciating and traumatizing detail. One investigation was conducted on behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and another by the league and the NWSL Players Association. Coaches and/or executives from nine of the league's 12 teams lost their jobs for charges ranging from verbal and emotional abuse to sexual coercion. Two teams -- the Portland Thorns and the Chicago Red Stars -- are now for sale. Yet the tremor-like effects on the players are still being felt.
"I personally have had two coaches who have been exposed through the reports and the investigations," midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard told ESPN in an exclusive interview. Howard was previously with the Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride, prior to joining the San Diego Wave ahead of this season. "So within my time in the league, I honestly don't think I've ever had a season when I've been able to fully focus on soccer without, unfortunately, things going on in the background."
While reforms are ongoing, others -- like mechanisms to report instances of abuse and ensuring teams have fully staffed human resources departments -- have been put in place. That has created a different climate for players, one where the focus is shifting back to the on-field product.
"My feeling coming into [San Diego] was that it was somewhere that really wanted to be professional, top to bottom, and create a culture that was one where players were safe and players were put first, and that would allow having a successful product on the field," Howard said. "And I think that's something I haven't been in before."
Now the heaviness players were collectively feeling has begun to ease, and there's a chance to maximize the momentum that has been generated on a wide range of topics.
San Diego Wave teammate and U.S. national team forward Alex Morgan told ESPN: "I think that this league is really hopeful in showcasing our quality on the field and our growth in the NWSL in general. I think that it's going to be a groundbreaking year for the NWSL because the fans are only continuing to tune in."
There certainly are some compelling aspects of the NWSL as it heads into the 2023 campaign. Commissioner Jessica Berman said on a conference call with reporters that season ticket sales leaguewide are up 20% from where they finished last year. Tickets sold for this weekend have matched last year with several days to go. Investment in infrastructure is continuing, with the Kansas City Current's stadium set to be completed in March 2024.
The appetite for expansion teams shows no signs of letting up, with the return of the Utah Royals already announced last week. New teams in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston are expected to come on board soon as well.
The fact that this is a World Cup year doesn't hurt, either. The tournament, be it the men's or women's version, has in the past driven up interest in the sport in the U.S. and Canada, and with the U.S. women's national team aiming for a third consecutive title, that figures to continue. The NWSL figures to play a prominent role as well, with Berman estimating that between 25% to 30% of the league's players will take part.
"We know that the World Cup invites tailwinds into this league historically and as recently as 2019," Berman said, "and we're going to be really intentional in our partnership with U.S. Soccer to invite those tailwinds in."
Not that Berman is content to simply ride momentum. She indicated that the NWSL plans to leverage the World Cup as much as possible, and will have "boots on the ground" -- herself included -- in Australia and New Zealand.
"I have made an intentional effort to spend time overseas with some of the key stakeholders and influencers as we think about some of the nuts and bolts that will position the league for success, including the schedule footprint and how we think about interweaving the priorities of the pro game with the national team activities," she said. "And that's an area that we're going to be doing more intentional strategy work and beginning to get ahead of the planning cycle so that we're planning one, two, three years ahead."
Herculez Gomez questions the FIFA 23 NWSL best XI as the #1 pick of the 2022 draft Naomi Girma is left out.
The league will release World Cup-bound players on June 26 and while no coach wants to be without top performers, OL Reign manager Laura Harvey noted that she views the schedule as being "the best schedule we've ever had" in terms of time missed. She recalls that players missed 10 games in 2015, and between eight and 10 in 2019. This time around only six games will be missed, with the league introducing two weeklong breaks during the tournament, three of which will be in the NWSL Challenge Cup, the league's cup competition.
The ramp-up time is also longer than in the past.
"Normally, it's like three games and then they're gone," Harvey said of players' limited availability before departing for the World Cup. "I think they might be available for 12, which is nuts." (It's actually 13 regular-season games and three Challenge Cup games that players could appear in before leaving for Australia and New Zealand.)
But the proximity of the World Cup can play tricks on the psyche of players. Delivering the level of performances needed to get selected to a World Cup roster butts up against the understandable desire to not get injured. For the moment, the first aspect is occupying more of the players' thoughts.
"I think if I don't do my job here, then there is no World Cup to think about," said OL Reign defender Alana Cook. "So as much as that is the goal and the childhood dream, I think my focus is here and my focus on getting better every day for this team. I think if I do that, then the rest takes care of itself."
That is something that San Diego Wave manager Casey Stone is keenly aware of and to which she is committed.
"Having played in World Cups myself -- I've been at three -- I understand the mentality around it," she told ESPN. "I also understand you want to go in a place where you're performing at your peak, so for us it's about preparing players to perform at their peak for us as a club, but also send them there fit, healthy, in form, at their peak, and then to do that and they need to play games. So I don't think there'll be any distractions."
The good news is that there is more emotional bandwidth to focus on such things, and there's a bit more trust in the league that it will follow through and enforce the reforms that have been put in place.
Berman said, "I think it's [the players'] hope that we at the league, and through ownership and management, can really take on the burden and work behind the scenes to offer the playing environment that meets the standard that certainly I've committed to, which is a place that makes the players proud to play."