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The NWSL is deeper and more balanced than ever

The Challenge Cup format is forcing teams to dig deep into their rosters, to everyone’s benefit.

If you watched the NWSL matches played yesterday, you probably saw a lot of players that ranged from unfamiliar to ‘never heard of her.’ That was particularly true in the Portland-Chicago game, where the Red Stars changed out all eleven starters from the opening match. Portland didn’t go to quite that extreme but they also gave a start to quite a few new players.

There are three factors driving this eruption. First, the lack of preseason and condensed schedule means no one can realistically play in every group stage match. Teams have big rosters and every reason to dip into them. Second, the tournament structure also discourages taking the group stage too seriously. All eight teams will advance to the knockout round, meaning these games are only for seeding. And while seeding isn’t completely irrelevant, it’s just not that big a deal. Third, the five substitution rule put in place for the post-COVID restarts encourages more roster turnover mid-game than we’ve usually seen. That makes it easier to bring in young players, and also makes it easier to rest your normal starters and bring them in to raise the level as needed—something we saw from North Carolina last night.

This can make following the games a little tough. Maybe the few who are deep in the college game already knew something about most of these players, but the rest of us are encountering many of them fresh right now. Without any preconceived notions about their abilities or style, there’s a lot to watch for. So we probably should hold off making any firm pronouncements about long term career prospects for players with 90 minutes of professional experience. But I do feel confident making a broader statement about the overall quality of play. And that is: the second and third strings are still really good.

But I want to go further and say that it’s not just the bench players for North Carolina or Chicago who look good. The quality of play across the board so far has been exceptional. Many commentators (myself included) expected the quality of play to suffer given the extended delay and short preseason. And there certainly has been some rust. But even so, these players are competing at an exceptional level—from Team 1 to Team 8, from the first starter to the final sub.

The NWSL has always been a league organized around the principle of parity. The draft is a leveling mechanism that distributes talent, at least in theory, on the basis of need. But it’s also always been a league dominated by teams that hired well, coached well, and exploited their resources well. North Carolina, Portland, and Chicago have all made the playoffs four years running, while teams like Houston and Utah have never made the playoffs.

The tides are turning, though. Each of the teams from last year’s bottom third of the league had excellent offseasons, which have immediately translated into performances on the pitch. Overhauls in leadership have righted these ships and new coaches have solidified the team culture. From top to bottom, every team in the league looks capable of not just sneaking a result here and there, but of actually outplaying the opposition.

We're used to having a couple teams dragging at the bottom of the league. But not only is there no obvious worst team this year, whoever is the weakest is still good. Watch these experimental lineups play and ask yourself whether they could beat the 2016 Boston Breakers or 2018 Sky Blue. The answer is clearly yes.

Despite swapping out their entire starting XI, Chicago fought well for a draw against Portland. Sky Blue earned a draw against OL Reign despite the absence of their two USWNT forwards. Portland is relying on a keeper with no previous NWSL experience. We’ve seen goals from rookies, key plays from undrafted non-roster invitees, excellent saves from goalkeepers with zero previous NWSL minutes. There's quality up and down the league, and it's squeezing everything nice and tight.

One illustrative example: after six total games, the league currently features a six-way tie for third place. Obviously, you don’t want to over-interpret from such a small sample size, but it’s also notable that every game has been close.

Well, almost every game. Last night’s matchup between North Carolina and Washington was billed as a potential showdown between the league’s two best teams. That reflects a bit of an excitement bubble around Washington, who are certainly good but perhaps have been weighted with too many expectations too quickly. But North Carolina found their next gear toward the end of the first half and then brought on the big guns to start the second half, and the game was pretty quickly put away.

The reality is: this is a league of genuine parity, with North Carolina as the one remaining extreme outlier. In fact, it’s quite possible that the gap between the second and eighth best teams in this tournament is smaller than the gap between first and second. As Kim McCauley asks in her newsletter this morning (you’ve signed up for Kim’s newsletter, right?), would you be able to construct a roster from any two teams that would match up favorably against North Carolina? She thinks not, and I’m inclined to agree.

But, for me at least, even that element of massive discontinuity only heightens the pleasure of this event. Precisely because the tournament format significantly reduces the pressure for these group stages matches, it allows each team to set different objectives for themselves. North Carolina is here to win. Washington and Houston are teams on the rise who feel like they might be ready now to assert themselves. That compares with traditional powerhouses like Portland and Chicago who might normally feel the pressure to go hard, but who can actually take this year as a chance to mess around with their palette a bit.

Underlying all of this is the reality that expansion is coming, and likely in a big way. But one final benefit to this tournament structure: it provides an excellent staging ground for players who want to earn their way into a starting role. Some players will step up to fill gaps created by the expansion draft. Others will become free agents once rosters contract, but will have a strong resume to bolster their case for a new contract with an expansion team.

At times, NWSL watchers have worried a bit about how fast the league wants to expand. There’s been talk of adding five teams over the next couple years. Can the league really sustain its performance levels if players have to be stretched that thin? The answer suggested by the opening stages of this tournament is a pretty clear Yes. While expansion might cause some reallocations of power, there’s simply no reason to think it will significantly degrade the overall quality of play.

The American talent pool is bursting at the seams, and it’s ready for the next challenge.


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