We’re a good chunk into the National Women’s Soccer League off-season, which means speculation and rumors about what the 2019 edition will look like are already in full swing. Though there've been hurdles and uncertainties along the way, things have been so far, so good for the NWSL since it first kicked off in 2013.
Whereas previous women’s professional leagues the WUSA and WPS lasted just three years, the NWSL just closed out its sixth season, and with a FIFA Women’s World Cup on the horizon, it looks as if the league will not just be here to stay, but will continue to garner interest and expand to other markets.
Last year, then NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush discussed plans to expand the NWSL to 14 teams by 2020. There have been some minor set backs in that process, with the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City shutting down operations last year (though the latter’s rights were transferred to Salt Lake City to form new club Utah Royals).
While there has been a net loss of NWSL teams from 2017 to 2018, it truly seems as if these foldings were a process of trimming the fat from the league, and we have continued to see better quality clubs on the whole in the past few seasons.
Part of this has to do with the trend of MLS and USL-affiliated clubs moving to invest in establishing an NWSL team in their respective city. This no doubt provides a more professional environment in terms of facilities and management for women’s players, and, in turn, has proven to lead to success on the field (see: MLS/USL-affiliated clubs NC Courage and Portland Thorns, who made the final, versus independent clubs Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC, who posted a couple of the worst records in women’s professional soccer history in 2018).
That being said, it's highly likely that the next clubs to begin play in the NWSL will have a brother club playing in the top tiers of men’s professional soccer. Here, we will take a look at a few of the potential locations for the NWSL clubs of the future.
NWSL Expansion Plans
The thought of an NWSL team in Atlanta should have everyone licking their lips, and it’s a no brainer if everything goes accordingly with investors. Atlanta United’s entrance into MLS has been nothing short of a revelation — the team heads into the MLS playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s second seed, has given us one of the league’s most entertaining stars in Josef Martinez and are widely reported to be the best supported team in the league.
The Georgia capital has both a football team and a basketball team, but soccer undeniably has a special place in the city’s heart. There have been talks about starting an NWSL team in Atlanta for quite a few years. The Big Peach is no stranger to the professional women’s soccer scene after fielding the Atlanta Beat in both the WUSA and WPS.
A couple investment groups, with heavy support from Atlanta fans, have been in talks with the league since 2015 to make the idea of a NWSL club a reality. Though efforts have been on and off, the last reports in 2017 indicated the aim of a 2019 launch for an Atlanta team.
Considering the prevalence of the MLS-NWSL model, the city’s soccer market and Atlanta United’s success and support, it would be unsurprising to see not just an NWSL team come to the city but a very competitive one at that.
Another city with a new MLS team talking about establishing a professional women’s soccer franchise. The NWSL to MPLS (already has the sound of a marketable slogan!) move was so, so close to happening last year. Minnesota businessman Elam Baer actually bought the rights to FC KC when it folded with the hopes of moving the club to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, however, the league bought it back from him and the Utah Royals were established instead, as it was considered the best decision for the league’s growth at the time.
Though the move to Minnesota did not materialize, Baer has said recently that he is still interested in helping to add a team to the market and believes the league is a good “long-term investment”.
The men’s leagues have had success expanding into Canada, and it seems that the NWSL would also make gains if it decided to move transnationally.
Women’s soccer in Canada is huge. We often talk about the USWNT outperforming the USMNT, but when it comes to the two sides in the Great White North, it’s not even close, a fact that speaks not only to the popularity of and interest in the women’s game but the focus on development starting from the youth levels.
The sport in the country has undoubtedly gained even more traction since it hosted the World Cup in 2015. What makes an NWSL team in Canada even more appealing is that many Canadian women’s national team players ply their trade in the NWSL.
One has to wonder if Canada soccer could help tip the scales to get things running in Vancouver. It's reported that those within the Whitecaps franchise have been doing research on the numbers and logistics required to operate a women’s team, and though NWSL representatives have been hush hush on plans for Canada, this upcoming 2019 season has been thrown out as a possible entry date.
However, a major point of contention between the league and the Vancouver organization is the Whitecaps desire to make Canadian players be considered domestic players rather than international. So, it is probably best to not hold your breath just yet, but it is hard not to get excited about a vamped up Cascadia Rivalry as the clashes between Seattle and Portland have continuously been very entertaining in NWSL.
The Bay Area
California’s lack of an NWSL team is, in my obviously non-biased Californian opinion, a travesty.
Time and again the Golden State has proven itself to be a women’s soccer hub. Also considering the fact that there are NWSL teams around the region in Washington, Oregon and Utah, it follows logic that a California team is a top priority for the league. A few have expressed interest in bringing the leagueto NorCal. The last time the Bay Area had a women’s professional soccer team, they were dominant, boasting the likes of Christine Sinclair, Marta and Tiffany Milbrett on their way to clinching the 2010 WPS championship.
In 2015 and 2016, USL’s Sacramento Republic stated on social media, and a member of the club’s ownership later confirmed, that adding an NWSL team was part of the future plans. Around the same time, San Jose Earthquakes president Dave Kaval also said establishing a women’s club was on their radar but pointed out that process of adding the requisite facilities was in embryonic stages.
A team in the southern part of California could be the likeliest to happen out of all the prospects in the soonest time. League Managing Director of Operations Amanda Duffy has explicitly said that not only is Los Angeles a market of interest, but there are several in the city that want to make this expansion happen.
One of those, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the ownership group behind new MLS team LAFC, which includes Mia Hamm.
In a particularly salivating development, over the past couple years, Barcelona has expressed a desire to be a part of getting a women’s team up and running in LA with the most recent comments being made about the possibility just last week.
When the MLS team was awarded to LA in 2014, the USWNT legend said that a women’s side in Los Angeles “just makes sense.” When the NWSL was first founded in 2012, LA was passed up not because of money issues, as may be suspected with many teams, but because of geography. It is hard to see that as a legitimate excuse now considering the longevity and success of the Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign during the league’s time. Now, too, the advent of Utah has added a fixture in similar proximity to LA.