For the first time in decades, the powerhouse that is women’s soccer in the United States finds itself at a crossroads.
On the one hand: three World Cup trophies and four Olympic gold medals, the most hardware for any women’s national team. On the other: a jarring trend of America’s most accomplished and marketable star players being lured away to play professionally in the relative luxury of Europe. This year, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd and Heather O’Reilly have departed to the women’s clubs of soccer behemoths across the ocean — France’s Olympique Lyonnais and England’s Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, respectively.
“These are three of the most exciting US players to watch and three of the most popular,” said former US national team player and current soccer analyst Julie Foudy, whose soccer-inspired book “Choose to Matter: Being Courageously and Fabulously YOU” hits stores May 2. “US fans will want to see those players and not having them available for some of the year will affect ticket sales and revenue.”
That means the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), opening its fifth season on Saturday (the longest run for any US women’s soccer league), has work to do — and fast. The absences of Morgan, Dunn and Lloyd, three faces of the US women’s national team, potentially could kneecap a league that hinges on grassroots fan engagement. (O’Reilly, 32, retired from the national team in September after 14 years.)
In a year without the national team commitments of a World Cup or an Olympics, these American players spurned the resource-challenged NWSL for the appeal of playing for higher salaries — top players can pull down six figures for several months of playing abroad, mirroring the experience of some WNBA stars — and having access to the world-class facilities and professional environments adjacent to Champions League clubs.
“We have the privilege to have the men’s facilities for all our clubs,” said Arsenal Ladies manager Pedro Martínez Losa, who arrived in London in 2014 after two years coaching in the NWSL with the Western New York Flash. “We are fully professional, we come in the mornings, we train full-time. We have a lot of resources from the club … and we can give them a salary so they can have a life in London. It’s not a massive salary compared with the men, but they can live and have a comfortable and stable life.”
Losa said Arsenal, like most of the women’s teams partnered with world-class men’s clubs, can provide O’Reilly and her teammates with tuition costs, housing and transportation. Morgan all but drooled over Lyon’s facilities when she announced her decision in a Players’ Tribune piece in December, noting their “unparalleled training environment,” “perfect grass fields” and “beautiful locker rooms.”
O’Reilly, who’s played in her fair share of stadiums since she joined the national team in 2002 as a high school senior, echoed Morgan’s praise when describing her experience at Arsenal this season.
“The training facility is unbelievable, some of the nicest pitches that I’ve ever played on, and we’re getting this on a daily basis,” O’Reilly said. “We’re also provided lunch every day and we lift as a team after training, so it’s very much an environment where you can tell the intent is this is our full-time job and we’re expected to commit our day to being a footballer.”
Pair that royal treatment with the opportunity to play in Europe’s rich soccer culture, and the move is a no-brainer — sometimes for talented American prospects right out of high school or college.
US midfielder Lindsey Horan made the unorthodox decision to give up a full-ride college scholarship at 18 years old and sign a six-figure deal with elite French club Paris Saint-Germain. Her concerns over missing the college experience and not getting proper national team exposure were footnotes to what she saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Going overseas was always something I wanted to do because I knew it was going to make me better,” said Horan, who scored 46 goals in 58 games as a striker for PSG before returning stateside and signing with the Portland Thorns in January 2016. “It was a little more difficult for [US coaches] to see me over there, but I knew at the time this was going to be the best thing for my development and hopefully they would see that.”
US coach Jill Ellis had Horan, 22, on her radar despite the distance, but leveraged her to return home with the promise of having a better shot of making the 2016 Summer Olympic roster. Horan earned a spot in Rio as a reserve and looks to be a national team anchor for years to come — without forgetting the path that led her there: training like a full-time professional and learning from the tactical soccer minds in Europe.
Midfielder Daphne Corboz, a three-time All-American at Georgetown who opted to postpone her NWSL career after graduation in 2015 to sign with Manchester City, said she’s never lived and breathed soccer like she did during her one season in England. Watching Premier League games live every weekend and being around players and coaches who grew up with the sport ingrained in them made the experience feel like, in her words, a “soccer dream world.”
“The allure of living abroad and improving my game was very big because I knew I’d be with coaches who had a whole different style,” Corboz said. “I’d be playing with players who had such a different background than me and I thought it’d really challenge me as a player.”
A “dream world” indeed compared to what some players outside of the US Soccer umbrella face in the NWSL. Corboz, 23, might be in for a rude awakening as she heads into her first season with Sky Blue after earning a large enough salary in England to live comfortably and pursue her Master’s degree in biomedical science from Manchester Metropolitan University. If a darling such as Morgan, who can supplement her salary with endorsement money, is fed up with some of the NWSL’s shabbiness, consider the plight of the league’s role players.
Cari Roccaro took the more typical route to the NWSL when the Houston Dash selected the defender No. 5 overall out of Notre Dame in the 2016 draft. Roccaro already has confronted the costs of living her dream in a slowly growing league.
“Last year, my salary was below poverty level when I looked it up,” Roccaro said. “In terms of facilities, we don’t even have a locker room at our practice field and I do my own laundry. I have one pair of cleats that I’m trying to use during the offseason and make it through until I can get another pair, as opposed to college where you get five pairs at a time.
“And those are just examples of things that don’t sound too professional, even though we are a professional league.”
The 22-year-old Long Island native admitted getting a more lucrative job with her Notre Dame degree has crossed her mind. But so far the prospect of doing what she loves and being a pioneer for women’s soccer in the US — while picking up babysitting and coaching jobs on the side — has outweighed the negatives.
And if future national team candidates such as Roccaro and Corboz wanted to reap the benefits of European soccer, they must balance it against the pull of home: Playing on US soil, in what remains the most competitive league top to bottom, gives them a better chance of being scouted by Ellis and her national team coaching staff. This power struggle is more tense now, too, as European national teams — Germany won the Olympics last summer, France asserted primacy in March’s SheBelieves Cup, England is up to No. 4 in the world rankings — have made up considerable ground in recent years.
What motivated Morgan, Dunn and Lloyd to sign short-term contracts with foreign clubs this year (only Dunn has committed to staying for the full year, while Morgan and Lloyd have said they will return to the NWSL at some point this summer) was the gap between major international tournaments. Aside from scattered friendlies, for which each player has rejoined the team, the next Women’s World Cup isn’t until 2019, the next Olympics not until 2020.
“It would be difficult for you to be considered for the next World Cup if you’re not playing domestically in the next couple of years,” O’Reilly said. “I think that this year makes it easier, but that’s something that Jill Ellis and [US Soccer President] Sunil Gulati need to reflect on if they want to keep the best US players at home.”
NWSL loyalists won’t deny a wave of panic swept through the league as each player announced she was signing a contract elsewhere.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Sky Blue president and general manager Tony Novo said. “I think initially it was like, ‘OK, what’s really going on here?’ … But I don’t see more players going abroad on a regular basis. Our league continues to get stronger, and if you want to play at the top level, this is the best league right now in the world to play in.”
Yes, out are four marquee players, but in are Brazilian superstar Marta, a groundbreaking TV partnership and a slight wage uptick for the NWSL. Just over a month after inking a deal with A&E Networks that promises 20 nationally televised live games as part of a Saturday “Game of the Week” feature and all games streamed online, the NWSL welcomed the national team’s new labor contract with US Soccer last Wednesday and the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year to the Orlando Pride on Friday.
It’s true the European leagues still lack the competitive depth of the NWSL, but are progressing fast. The Champions League — a super-tournament of clubs from across Europe –which will pit Morgan’s Lyon against Lloyd’s Manchester City in the semifinals on April 22, features the best women’s pro soccer in the world and could be far more intriguing than the undisclosed raise for national team players and the new $15,000 NWSL minimum salary — a $7,800 bump from last season.
What O’Reilly called a “fluid exchange” of players, techniques and ideas — such as the US girls’ academy program starting in 2017, Novo pointed out — should become more commonplace. American players also want to see the game flourish at home. It’s on the NWSL to keep up.
“It can’t go from 0 to 100 just like that with salaries and how professional clubs act,” Horan said. “We need these players in the NWSL that aren’t on the best contracts to stay strong and keep moving forward because they have to know that it’s going to get better and better.”