There isn’t much happening in the way of the Courage this week, as the team travels from Boston to Orlando while trying to practice and prepare along the way, but three major headlines have hit the NWSL wire in the last 24 hours. Here I’ll outline each and give some input.
Mallory Pugh Headed for Washington?
In April, Mallory Pugh made headlines when she decided to forego her education at UCLA and go pro instead. Before committing to play at UCLA, Pugh had hinted that she would go pro directly after high school, and the Portland Thorns decided to trade up in the allocation order in order to own her rights. The Thorns traded the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NWSL College Draft for the potential rights to Pugh, but then she decided to go to college at UCLA instead. Before playing her first college game though, Pugh changed her mind and decided to go pro. Nobody can blame her for this!
There have been numerous negative comments and reports regarding Pugh’s choice to skip college, but she has already been in talks with Nike and Adidas about sponsorship deals, and she is looking at millions of dollars in lost revenue by waiting four years before turning pro. All of the people saying that “soccer careers are short” have the wrong impression when assuming she should go to college to have a career after sports. She will make more in her 4 years not attending college than most of us will earn in a lifetime; for superstar players, those 4 years of earning potential are extremely important.
Speculation swirled when Pugh decided to go pro. During the off-season the Washington Spirit had traded for the rights to the first allocation slot, presumably to get Andi Sullivan (Stanford), but she tore her ACL. The injury prevented her from going pro and left Washington holding the bag after they traded for the #1 allocation slot (once again from Boston). Fortunately for the Spirit, Mal Pugh fell into their laps but there was a catch; Pugh had no desire to play for the Spirit.
Almost immediately after Pugh left college reports swirled about where she would end up. While these reports differed significantly, the one thing they had in common was that Pugh had no interest in joining the Washington Spirit. The Spirit, due to ownership issues, had been gutted causing them to lose seven starting players from their championship finals team the year before. Instead, Pugh wanted to play for the Portland Thorns. Now if the Thorns had been a bad team nobody would have questioned this move. Washington would have traded her rights to the Thorns and she would have been playing weeks ago, but the Thorns are stacked and the Washington owner was holding a grudge against the Thorns because they wooed coach Mark Parsons away from the Spirit in 2015. Now when I say stacked just what do I mean?
- The Thorns have 5 USWNT players (Klingenberg, Heath, Long, Sonnett, and Horan) along with 1 CanWNT player (Sinclair). The next closest team had 4 allocated players (Chicago with 4 USWNT players) while the Spirit have 0 USWNT and 2 CanWNT.
- The Thorns also have some of the best international players in the NWSL: Nadia Nadim (Denmark), Dagny Brynjarsdottir (Iceland), Hayley Raso (Australia), Amandine Henry (France), and Ashley Sykes (Australia)
So effectively, the Thorns can fill out almost a whole roster with players that star on their respective national teams. The Thorns also earned the most points in the league in 2016, earning them the Shield. Add it all up, and there wasn’t a whole lot of good-will towards an exceptional talent like Pugh landing in the lap of the Portland Thorns. While some fans were suggesting that USSF and the NWSL should step in and arbitrarily reward her rights to the Thorns to prevent her from looking elsewhere, that would certainly have done more harm than good by upsetting any semblance of competitive balance between the teams.
The other option for Pugh was going overseas. Rumor was that she had an offer to play for PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) , but with their season ending shortly she wouldn’t have much soccer to play there. Endland, Sweden, even China were thrown around as possible landing spots for the young forward, but nothing seemed to move forward. The Spirit, absolutely desperate for star power, were refusing to trade her rights, the Thorns didn’t have much leverage or favor, and the leagues around the world were quickly coming to a close. In the last day rumors have come forward from multiple sources that Pugh would join the Spirit. As Courage fans, this is the best possible news for us. The Spirit are hardly title contenders so she wouldn’t be a threat like she would be on the Thorns, but having her play in the NWSL would grow the league and drive more fans to weakly attended games. Of all the solutions, this is the best for us and the best for the league.
Merritt Paulson Delivers Action
Late at night on May 10th, US Soccer lodged an official complaint against Jean-Michel Aulas, owner of Olympique Lyonnais, for tampering with players under contract. After a match on Saturday, Aulus tweeted at Allie Long of the Portland Thorns that he would love to see her on his team next season. This is notable because, to my knowledge, no tampering complaint has ever been lodged against a club or organization in women’s soccer. Until this point no women’s soccer league has generated enough revenue or had enough clout to lodge such a complaint, let alone warrant the tampering in the first place. This complaint comes less than a year after Orland Pride forward, and USWNT star, Alex Morgan joined Lyon for the 2017 season. Aulas had repeatedly reached out to Morgan, on social media and otherwise, expressing interest in her joining his team. The fact that she, along with Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit) and Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), left the NWSL to try their fortunes overseas shocked many who wondered if the league could survive if some of the greatest talents in the game left for European money. (Note: Morgan and Lloyd will return to their respective teams when the European Championship concludes, at this point Dunn will not)
The fact that the USSF lodged these complaints indicated that they are not interested in losing more contracted talent to international squads, especially when USSF and the NWSL have been working tirelessly to increase the wages and standards of living for players. USWNT players reached a new collective bargaining agreement recently, and the NWSL salaries were increased significantly from 2017 with the minimum salary rising from $7,200 in 2016 to $15,000 in 2017. Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns, lashed out at the Aulas on Twitter in response to his attempts to convince Long. While it is likely that nothing will come of the complaint, the fact that USSF is standing up for its teams is extremely valuable for a league that is striving to become profitable, something European squads know nothing about. The vast majority of women’s squads in Europe are amature, and the stadiums usually fit less than 5,000 fans. Indeed, the stadium that Lyon Women play most of their games in fits just 1,524 people; significantly less than the average attendance of every NWSL team, and Lyon is the most successful women’s club in Europe. Additionally, the NWSL provides evenly spread talent and tough games each week, in Europe a few squads own all of the good players while most of the teams are utterly non-competitive. We will have to see where this goes, but it is definitely a good sign for the NWSL.
Barcelona Wants a NWSL Team?
News broke today that Barca wants to finance and run a team in the NWSL in 2018. We knew that expansion teams were likely coming after the continued success of the league, but few would have guessed that one of the new expansions would be run from across the pond. Currently the NWSL roster rules require at least 16 of the 20 players to hold United States or Canadian (if allocated) FIFA citizenship, and under these rules it would seem unhelpful for the Spanish team to develop American talent on their dime. That said, I can see a few circumstances where it would be reasonable.
First, it is possible that Barca simply sees this as a good investment opportunity and a way to get their foot in the door in the American soccer market. Every NWSL team is running in the black, with attendance and ticket sales well above running costs. Some teams, like Portland, are raking in the dough with a salary cap of $315,000 and regular attendance of 15,000+ fans. Even with modest ticket prices you can see that the profit is quite lucrative when the USSF pays most of the player salaries and operating costs. Barca would get free advertising, in essence, just by running the team.
Second, with their sponsorship it is possible that the roster rules could change. Currently each team is allowed to roster 4 international players, but if their team could have 6, 8 or even 10 Spanish players it would expose them to a much higher level of competition than they see in Spain. Currently Barcelona is easily the best women’s squad in Spain, and it might be nice to get some training in overseas against quality opponents during the Spanish off-season. If this were the case I think the NWSL and USSF would alter how salaries are paid to players.
The truth of the matter is that it might be both. NWSl teams, especially well advertised and run ones, are extremely lucrative. Even without and added benefits that is probably enough. You could also run your team with at least 4, possibly more through trades, Spanish players even if the NWSL doesn’t change the rules. The rule changes might already be in the works, though, since there have been mutterings of an NWSL expansion in Canada for the 2018 season as well. Certainly the Canadians won’t be happy with a team of 16 Americans and 4 Canadians. This may just be the next step in the NWSL process, and I’m all for it as long as it doesn’t cause an uneven playing field.