The Seattle Reign didn’t even have an office yet when Utah Royals FC coach Laura Harvey arrived in Seattle from the Arsenal women’s team in February of 2013, she said.
“There was nothing,” said Harvey, who coached Seattle Reign FC for five years before the Royals hired her this fall. “So I was like, what have I let myself in for? What have I done?”
The National Women’s Soccer League, which played its inaugural season in 2013, has developed dramatically in the past five years. It has increased significantly player salaries, expanded from eight teams to 10 and considerably outlived all other top-tier women’s soccer leagues in the U.S.
Low wages and subpar facilities still can be found throughout the league, but it has come far since that first season, which Harvey claims she’ll write a book about one day.
“I just think everyone in the league has got similar stories,” Harvey said. “When you’re in a startup league, every week is just nuts.”
NWSL most recently added a team in Utah and supplied it with players from the defunct Kansas City roster. Utah Royals FC, which will play its inaugural season in 2018, becomes the fourth NWSL club to be affiliated with an MLS team. Its addition generally is regarded as a promising step for the league.
“When you put the women in an environment like this, with facilities like this, the resources, the exposure, the experience, it raises the overall professionalism of what we’re trying to accomplish, the overall experience of what the players have and just keeps accelerating this league in a positive way,” NWSL Managing Director of Operations Amanda Duffy told The Tribune at the announcement of the Utah Royals launch in November.
So it’s time to examine the state of the league as Utah enters it before the Royals have a chance to push the league forward.
The first thing Utah Royals defender Kelley O’Hara would tell a new NWSL fan is that every game is exciting.
“There’s no throwaway games, there’s no throwaway points,” she said. “You have to get as many points every time you step on the field as possible.”
Each of the league’s 10 teams plays a 24-game regular season that runs from April through September. Only four make it into the playoffs. From there, it’s a single-elimination tournament.
The Portland Thorns claimed the NWSL championship title last season and enjoyed the highest attendance of any team in the league by a long shot. Portland, the first NWSL team owned and operated by an MLS club, averaged 17,678 fans per game, compared to a 5,061 league average last season.
The other two MLS-affiliated reams are the Houston Dash and Orlando Pride. The North Carolina Courage share ownership with North Carolina FC, a USL team.
Each club must have 18 to 20 players on its roster, although there are exceptions allowed for injury and goalkeeper replacement.
U.S. and Canada women’s national team players sign contracts with their respective federations, not the NWSL. Those federations pay their players’ salaries and allocate the players to the league. The salary cap is listed as a specific number, but that figure is adjusted for each club according to the number of federation players it carries.
The team salary cap last season was $315,000, with a minimum player salary budget charge of $15,000 and a maximum of $41,700.
Each team also receives funds to help with the players’ housing and car costs. Some clubs use that money to secure housing for their players, while others give it out as a stipend.
“There’s still a pretty large gap between where players are in Major League Soccer and where we are in NWSL,” Duffy said in November. “... It’s something our ownership are continuing to review and look at to make sure we’re continuing to move that forward with where we are right now.”
The league, which started off with a minimum salary budget hit of $6,000, has made good on that promise so far. The minimum more than doubled between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
“I’m really glad to see that it has been making positive improvements,” said Liz Bogus, a Utah native who played in the NWSL for three years. “I think it’s something that as a player you understood that it needed to be that way. And you hope that we all continue to help the league grow into the point where those salaries can be actual livable salaries.”
While the NWSL is still in its infancy compared to other top-tier leagues around the world, the U.S. Soccer-operated women’s soccer league has lasted far longer than either of its predecessors. Neither the WUSA nor WPS made it past its third season.
WPS, which Bogus also played in, began with a $565,000 salary cap, and the league soon became unstable.
“Right away I thought it had a good chance,” Bogus said about the NWSL, “because U.S. Soccer was involved and because they made things lower-budget from the get-go with the idea of growing instead of trying to make it something really big from the get-go.”
The USWNT was on the front lines of the effort to advance the league. Non-allocated players did not have a players association until May, and the NWSL players association still is working toward creating a union.
The USWNT Players Association cannot negotiate on behalf of non-federation players, but it did get U.S Soccer to commit to improving NWSL facilities and player accommodations in the collective bargaining agreement ratified in April.
“We kind of feel that we are the keepers of the league in a way,” said O’Hara, a member of the CBA committee. “…That’s why we just want to continue to push it forward, make sure that it’s sustainable, make sure it grows.”
NWSL also landed a huge victory with a new TV deal with A+E Networks in February. Lifetime became an official sponsor and broadcast partner of NWSL, committing to broadcast a league game every weekend of the season. The three-year contract began in April.
“As a player, it’s really exciting to see us going into our sixth season,” O’Hara said, “to have a team like the Utah Royals join with an amazing front office and ownership, which is exciting, and I think is what the league hopefully will continue to do as it grows and as it progresses.”
NATIONAL WOMEN’S SOCCER LEAGUE
Size of league • 10 teams
Size of roster • 18 to 20 players
Regular season • 24 games
Inaugural season • 2013
Most NWSL championship wins • Portland Thorns, FC Kansas City (2 each)
Most NWSL Shields • Seattle Reign FC (2)
MLS-affiliated teams • Portland Thorns, Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, Utah Royals FC