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The NWSL Should Get Rid of International Slots

The National Women’s Soccer League artificially limits squads with international roster restrictions. It’s an unfair and confusing system that should be abandoned.

The NWSL imposes a strict limit on the number of international players. Each squad is allocated four international slots, which can then be traded among teams. It makes for a mess as everyone tries to remember where those slots end up each year and which players will be covered.

In theory, limits on international players serve the basic interest of the league: to create a space for American players to grow and develop. Without limits, foreign players could flood the league, crowding out domestic players.

But that theory is wrong. Maintaining the system of international spots is actively harming the league, and hurting a lot of worthy players in the process.

International discrimination is unnecessary; the U.S. is perfectly able to compete

One major flaw in this logic: The U.S. hardly needs a leg up to support its domestic soccer industry. The United States has literally hundreds of players who would start for all but a few dozen international squads. Ali Krieger famously said at the 2019 World Cup that the second-best team in the world is the USWNT Second XI. And she might not be wrong.

Sure, opening up rosters would leave some additional Americans on the margins. But it’s not like they wouldn’t have any other options. Plenty of Americans go abroad as it is. If a few more lose out on NWSL roster spots, they may decide to play in Prague or Turin or London. But it’s pretty hard to argue that this would meaningfully harm U.S. Soccer as a whole.

Maybe a few decades down the road, the NWSL could find itself like the men’s Premier League is today—with so much top international talent that English players genuinely struggle to find minutes. But we are not remotely close to that world today, and there’s no need to legislate against the possibility.

The case for protecting the market is even harder to sustain when you consider the imminent arrival of significant expansion. The NWSL grew by one team this offseason and is set to add two more next year, with more likely just over the horizon. If more international players want to throw themselves into the mix for roster slots in that world, more power to them!

The international rules are porous at best

The regulations for international slots are also pretty porous. Players who by all accounts seem to be internationals regularly evade the slot restrictions by getting green cards or by reference to multinational heritage. Marta now has a green card. So does Celia Jiménez Delgado. Jess Fishlock has had a green card for years, bring international quality without requiring an international spot. Same with Rachel Corsie. OL Reign just signed England keeper Karen Bardsley to a loan deal, noting in the press release that "Bardsley is a U.S. citizen, which has allowed OL Reign to sign the keeper without utilizing an international slot."

There’s nothing wrong with any of this per se. Someone who has lived and worked in the U.S. for a long time certainly has every right to be treated as a full active member of society.

But if some internationals get those protections while others don’t, it creates yet another uneven application of the rule. Far better to adopt the friendly attitude toward all players. If you want to play here, you are welcome. No need for bureaucratic regulation.

Artificial competition is unfair

The argument for restraint also suffers from a significant moral problem: What is the logic for granting extra support to American players simply because they happen to already live here? The playing field is already uneven. On average, U.S. nationals have huge advantages in terms of a developed soccer culture and economic resources. It feels extra cruel to then carve out an overwhelming majority of roster slots for them as well.

That may not be a huge issue when it comes to players from France or England or Sweden, but consider how many players from Concacaf nations feature heavily in the ranks of U.S. college soccer. Those players operate side-by-side with their American counterparts, but they suffer huge disadvantages as soon as the draft rolls around because their selection carries the obligation to use a valuable international slot.

After all, international slots currently sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the open market. In some cases, a slot might be "worth" as much as an actual player earns in salary. But that market price only exists because the league chooses to impose artificial scarcity. The result is a huge tax on internationals. With two roughly equivalent players, the U.S. resident will always be favored, simply because she doesn't cost that valuable international slot.

Diversity is good

There’s also a purely positive case for expanding the range of international participation in the league. It’s better to have players from around the world competing together. That’s always been a strength of the NWSL, and it’s one the league should lean into more aggressively. The U.S. is a choice market for all kinds of reasons. The league should take advantage of that by encouraging a wide range of players to bring their talents here.

Soccer is a global game, and there’s not nearly as much diversity in terms of playing style or approach as there once was. But it’s still true that players from different backgrounds approach the game differently, emphasize different skill sets and bring different tactical knowledge. And beyond the pure mechanics of the game, rosters that are rich with players from across the world are a whole lot more fun. Think about how much more fans would enjoy rooting for a team with players from Japan, Australia, Argentina, Guatemala, Ukraine and Nigeria all on the same pitch—along with a few Americans and Canadians, of course.

By the same token, the U.S. talent pool will only be strengthened if more Americans are plying their trade in leagues around the world. We’ve already seen a move for some players to head abroad—with some USWNT stars making big moves in the past few months. It would be exciting to see them joined by more Americans who don’t necessarily come from the top ranks. The more experience everyone can get, the more a rising tide will lift all the boats.

Tear down this wall

If you believe that the United States should be an open and welcoming place for immigrants, that logic certainly applies to the NWSL. Getting rid of international slots obviously won't help everyone. Some players will lose out as more competition arrives. But we shouldn't set policy on the basis of what will be best for whichever group happens to currently be getting preferential treatment. We should design policy to meet the broadest moral and practical need. In 2021 and beyond, that means opening the floodgates and making the NWSL a more realistic target for all the excellent players who are currently being blocked.