This spring, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hopes to succeed where others have failed, in establishing a professional female league to stay.
The brand-new league governed by the United States Soccer Federation features eight teams across the U.S. comprised of American, Canadian, and Mexican national team players. The clubs are located in Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Chicago, Washington, New Jersey, and New York.
Canada contributed 16 national team players to the NWSL, including 12 from the 2012 Olympic bronze medal-winning roster. Captain Christine Sinclair was allocated to the Portland Thorns FC, returning to the city where she mounted a successful NCAA career.
The new league will respect international events, allowing team Canada players to meet as a group more often. National team veteran Rhian Wilkinson, who was selected to the Boston Breakers, says competing as a group will strengthen the team long-term.
“The last two decades Canadian players have played overseas, played in the States, played wherever we possibly can in order to stay at the top level,” Wilkinson says. “What it means is that whenever we have a national team event our coaching staff is having to juggle ten different schedules.
“It gives our coach an unprecedented ability to monitor his team but also create a schedule around our league play. It just gives us more soccer, really.”
Canadian national team goaltender Erin McLeod agrees, saying the increased playing time together will benefit the team. “When [national team coach] John Herdman came on board he talked about how essential it is that we’re all playing professionally and the more of us that can have contracts the better. More touches we can get on the ball and more consistent environments that we’re in, the better.”
Other Canadians selected for the NWSL by Herdman include Adriana Leon, Carmelina Moscato, Desiree Scott, Lauren Sesselmann, Karina LeBlanc, Kaylyn Kyle, Emily Zurrer, Sophie Schmidt, Melanie Booth, Robin Gayle, Diana Matheson, Bryana McCarthy, and Jodi-Ann Robinson.
FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wombach of the U.S. national team was allocated to the Western New York Flash and U.S. goal keeper Hope Solo was sent to the Seattle Reign FC. Mexican national team captain Maribel Domínguez went to the Chicago Red Stars.
The allocation process distributed 55 players to the eight teams as evenly as possible. An expert panel awarded each player a numerical value based on skill and desirability. The league also took into consideration the preferences of each player and club.
The NWSL is the third attempt at women’s professional soccer in the United States. The Women’s United Soccer Association folded in 2003 after losing nearly $100 million in three years. Women’s Professional Soccer followed in 2009 but also failed after three seasons.
At present, the highest level of women’s soccer in Canada is the USL W-League, a tier below the professional level. Mexican Association Football Federation has operated its women’s Super Liga since 2007, a professional league seeking to develop female soccer players.
Anup Kang, coach of VIU’s women’s soccer team, says the NWSL is an important step towards growing the sport in Canada.
“This new league will definitely aid awareness and development of female soccer players in Canada,” Kang says. “The Canadian Soccer Association is funding Canadian players selected to play in this league. Our top players now have an opportunity to play at the highest level and that will lead to positive results on the field for national team in international tournaments.”
Team salary caps are set at $500 thousand, and each country’s respective federation will pay the salary of their players. The highest contracts are reportedly under $50 thousand to the most skilled players.
A key goal of the league is to prepare North American players for the next FIFA Women’s World Cup (WWC), which will be hosted by Canada for the first time in 2015. The tournament will expand from 16 teams to 24 for an additional 20 matches.
“Speaking to coaches across the league, the real aim of the league is to not only to make a quality league for women, but to prepare all three countries the best way possible for the upcoming World Cup,” McLeod says. “With 16 of our players on contract I think it’s a really good opportunity for us individually and for us as a team to get better.”
Matches will be held across Canada in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, and Moncton. Organizers have yet to announce which cities will host medal round games, but Vancouver is a likely candidate with four current players from the lower mainland including fan favourites Sinclair and Schmidt.
Canada failed to win a match in the last WWC but is determined to win the trophy on home field in 2015. The team recently earned second place at the Four Nations Cup in China, despite Sinclair serving a four-game suspension and several young players making their international debut.
The WWC has sparked several development improvements in the country. Construction of the new $35 million National Soccer Development Centre in Vancouver was announced in Sept. Canada Soccer also launched its Wellness to World Cup program, which aims to improve player development from children’s to professional leagues.
McLeod founded the Grass2Gold program with Canadian teammate Melissa Tancredi, which aims to develop youth soccer players at the elite level.
“[Soccer players] get access to all these wonderful resources, but not until you’re basically on the national team. Our goal is to coach these players and give them access to things we have access to. We talk to them about nutrition and our own personal Olympic journeys,” McLeod says.
For more information on Grass2Gold or McLeod’s motivational speaking events, visit <www.erinmcleod.net>.