In auto racing, there are times when cars are forced to use a restrictor plate over the air intake to limit the power of the engine. It’s often done under the promise of safety. It is too unsafe to let the full power of the engines out at once. To keep a more even keel to things, they restrict some power.
The NWSL often feels as though US Soccer, the NWSL front office and to a lesser extent some of the ownership groups are perfectly happy to keep a restrictor plate on the league.
They don’t want too much growth nor to have conditions and salaries growing too quickly. Not only is there a minimum salary of $16,538 and a $421,500 salary cap put on the total roster, but a team maximum just to make sure no one wants to pay their star something crazy like $47,000 a year.
The NWSL wants a league full of Portland Thorns while making sure that teams like Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit aren’t blown out of the water. The league does need to monitor its growth and make sure it doesn’t spin out of control. But it also has to allow the key teams of the league to move the league forward without standing in their way. While there are ways for teams not directly connected to MLS groups to grow and compete, the tactic of holding the league back to make sure teams who, if we’re being honest, are run about as well as your high school’s 9th grade production of Our Town, might not be the best long term bet the league could make.
So what do I think the NWSL should do to help take the restrictor plate off of the league? While that isn’t an easy answer or a quick path, I think there are some steps they have to take if they want to see growth that keeps the league moving forward.
1) They need higher overall league standards
Having locker rooms with showers, not playing games on college fields, having proper housing for players, I could go on but the league needs to both create a set of league minimums that are higher while also taking a hard stance when teams fail to live up to those standards.
If the league wants to grow it has to improve the standards year or year in meaningful ways. Holding the Utah’s and Portland’s of the league back to make sure that teams like Sky Blue and Washington don’t have to spend to much more money only holds progress back.
2) Bring Designated Players to the NWSL
For those who do not know, in MLS a designated player is a player that basically doesn’t count against the salary cap.
The NWSL should add something similar to their rule book. Give each team one or two players who do not count against the current $421,500 salary cap. If Orlando wants to pay Marta $1,000,000 a year to play in the NWSL, let them. If Ada Hegerberg can be brought to Utah or Seattle or Portland for $200,000 a year? Let the owners pay for it.
3) Let there be (some) free agency
Right now if the team you’re on offers you a contract and you decline – well they keep your rights and there is always overseas, right? Allowing players to become free agents if they are unable to come to an agreement with their clubs when their contracts end would give the players a little more choice and prevent some of the rights holding that teams have engaged in in the past that forced players to go overseas.
4) USSF needs to back off
USSF controls far too much in this league. They control all USWNT players contracts that play in the NWSL, they pay them and as much loyalty as you can ascribe to the relationship, it all goes to USSF and away from the club teams. Sam Mewis might love North Carolina, but the North Carolina Courage do not control her contract nor do they sign her paycheck.
There are ways USSF can keep supporting the league in terms of giving each team financial support without iron-fisted control being demanded in return.
The NWSL is not a bad league. It is not a league that will fold end of the season. But there is no doubt it is being held back. Teams that are unable or unwilling to move forward with the pace of the other teams, a federation that wants a 9 month long training camp for it’s stars, simple lack of some basic amenities of other American sports all coalesces to tie weights to the league’s cleats.
The NWSL has lasted 7 years by growing in a careful progressing as they put together their new engine. They have done slow and steady laps around the track. Not going to fast, being very careful on the turns. It’s time the throttle was opened up a bit and we can see just how well the car was put together.