The National Women's Soccer League will be without its two most marketable stars when it opens play for a fifth season in April.
Two-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd recently announced that she would be joining Manchester City, while U.S. Women's National Team star Alex Morgan signed with French side Olympique Lyonnais earlier this year. Lloyd and Morgan follow 2015 NWSL Player of the Year Crystal Dunn, who signed with Chelsea in January, and former USWNT star Heather O'Reilly, who made the jump to Arsenal. Both Lloyd and Morgan will return to the NWSL this summer, but Dunn and O'Reilly are set to remain in Europe.
Though the high-profile departures are far from ideal for a fledging league like the NWSL, which has thus far relied heavily on the marketability of its USWNT stars, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush downplayed the significance of the exits.
"I wouldn't say it's a concern," Plush said. "We have players that leave every year. We have players that come in every year. That's the nature of the global football business. These players are taking advantage of the opportunities to go experience something that they're excited about. We're off and running with our plans for 2017 and we're excited about that."
Despite the departures, the NWSL remains in the most solid position that any women's top-flight professional soccer league in the United States has ever been. The league is entering its historic fifth season on stable footing and is coming off a successful 2016 campaign where it enjoyed record attendance numbers. The NWSL also just announced a landmark TV deal with Lifetime that will ensure for the first time that games are broadcast nationally for the entire season. And the league is set to double its minimum player salary in 2017 - a good first step toward addressing what has been seen as a troublesome issue in the NWSL.
There are also plenty of high-profile USWNT players that have no interest in leaving the NWSL. Portland Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath told ESPN in December that she felt like she was "playing for the best club in the world" with the Thorns.
"I love European football, the idea of playing in the Champions League is awesome, but we've got a great league here in the NWSL and we're going into our fifth season," Heath said. "I feel like I'm playing for the best club in the world with the Portland Thorns so in that way I'm very happy here in the U.S."
Still, the four high-profile exits are also a reminder that the NWSL has a hill to climb.
With no major tournament scheduled until the 2019 Women's World Cup and the USWNT still aiming to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, the timing was right for USWNT players to test their options in Europe. The draw of playing for historic European clubs that can offer higher salaries, top-rate facilities unequalled throughout most of the NWSL and competitions against teams throughout Europe can be hard to turn down.United States' Alex Morgan holds us her new shirt during a press conference as part of her official presentation in Lyon, central France, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. Morgan signed a half-season contract with reigning European champions Olympique Lyon. AP -WR
"In a situation like Manchester City, with their ownership group, they have unlimited money, they have some wonderful facilities," Plush said. "But we're very comfortable with where we stand in the kind of global infrastructure for women's sports and women's soccer in particular. We'll continue to invest in our clubs and invest in our infrastructure and grow over time."
The high-profile departures have taken some attention away from the proactive moves that the NWSL has been making to continue to improve and grow ahead of its fifth season.
A+E Networks and the NWSL agreed to a momentous and multi-faceted partnership in early February in which the media company took over a 25 percent stake in the NWSL and Lifetime became an official sponsor of the league.
NWSL games, which were previously streamed on YouTube or on Fox networks on a limited basis, will now be broadcast weekly and nationwide on Lifetime. The games will also be streamed online through NWSL Media, a joint venture between the NWSL and A+E Networks that will act as the media and commercial arm of the league. Plush said the NWSL Media venture will allow the league to produce higher-quality game streams, an important improvement for a league that has struggled with inconsistent streaming in the past.
"It's transformational for our league," Plush said. "I think people will be really pleased to see more coverage of our league and have more opportunities to get to know our players."
Along with the partnership with A+E Networks, the league also appears poised to make a significant improvement in player salaries.
The Houston Chronicle reported in January that the NWSL would be doubling its minimum salary from $7,200 in 2016 to $15,000 this season, a move that is certainly indicative of substantial progress.
"I think it's important step," Plush said. "Again, it's just a step. We're going to continue to grow year-over-year, but our owners fully understood that this was an area that we needed to take another step forward."
Plush still recognizes that the league needs to address fundamental issues over time, including raising standards for training environments and field quality throughout the league. And while the NWSL saw a record average attendance of 5,558 in 2016, that number remains skewed by the unprecedented success of the Thorns, which averaged 16,945 fans per game. In comparison, Sky Blue FC, which had the lowest attendance in 2016, averaged just 2,162 fans per game.
But while the NWSL will continue to look at opportunities to grow its fan base in its existing markets, the league is also prepared to continue to expand. The Western New York Flash were sold in the offseason and moved its franchise to become the North Carolina Courage and there's currently significant interest from potential expansion markets, making it likely that the league could add expansion teams in 2018.
"There's never been more interest in expansion for our league," Plush said. "I'm very confident in the direction that we're going."
While the NWSL will start the 2017 season without some of its most marketable players and it remains to be seen how the absences will impact the young league, Plush isn't focused on the departures.
He's excited about what's still to come.
"I think the future is very bright for us," Plush said. "There's so much more that we can achieve. That's what's exciting for me. I think we haven't even scratched the surface on what we can become."
-- Jamie Goldberg | firstname.lastname@example.org
503-853-3761 | @jamiebgoldberg
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