Updated: Jan 1, 2020
The World Cup is a wonderful event. Once every four years, the whole world collectively watches the best players in the world compete. We watch their triumphs and their failures. And we share it with millions of others all watching together. There is nothing that can replicate that kind of communal experience.
But there’s actually something even better out there: club soccer.
It hasn’t always been true. For most of the history of women’s soccer, ‘clubs’ barely existed at all. They were amateur organizations at best, literally nonexistent at worst. That all changed in the United States in the early 2000s with the arrival of the Women’s United Soccer Association. For three shining years, the biggest stars in the world all played in America. But then the league folded. Things started up again in 2007 with Women’s Professional Soccer. Which also lasted for three years before folding.
So expectations were suitably low when the National Women’s Soccer League started up in 2013. But it has now outlasted the other two leagues combined, and is going strong.
The World Cup comes every four years, but the NWSL is here every week, and the quality is every bit as high as what you’ve been watching at the World Cup. It features all the very best American players, along with many other top players from across the world. Its teams draw big numbers—with Portland the shining jewel bringing in over 16,000 fans per game. The league just signed a sponsorship deal with Budweiser, and reportedly has more deals coming. That influx of cash will help them stabilize and develop. They also just signed a TV deal with ESPN, which will make the league more accessible to casual fans. And those fans will be primed to go, thanks to all the excitement over the World Cup.
And they’re going to get a great show. In terms of talent on the pitch, this is maybe the best league in the world. But for too long, these world class players have been surrounded by a league run on a shoestring budget—under-capitalized, under-marketed, under-supported. But that’s ready to change and you can be a part of it.
Here are five reasons why you should be pumped to watch the NWSL.
The players are world class
Every single player competing for the US in the World Cup plays in the NWSL. If you’ve been enjoying Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, and Tobin Heath…they all play every week. Not to mention some incredible players who have barely seen minutes, like Jess McDonald, Mallory Pugh, and Morgan Brian.
But this is a truly international league. The NWSL also features Sam Kerr, maybe the best player in the world. And Marta, maybe the best player of all time. Christine Sinclair, who is also in that conversation for GOAT. Debinha, the rising star for Brazil. Abby Erceg from New Zealand. Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley, and Ellie Carpenter from Australia. Yuki Nagasato from Japan. Rachel Daly and Jodie Taylor from England. Raquel Rodríguez from Costa Rica. And these are only a few of the names.
From top to bottom, this is the deepest, highest-quality league in the world. Turn on any random game, and you’re likely to see a genuine superstar, and plenty more players close to that level.
The talent pool is deep
Skim off all fifty-odd players that went to the World Cup, and you’ve still got an incredibly deep pool of talent. That’s a feature of a US developmental structure that generates tens of thousands of high-level players per year, hundreds of whom reach the end of their college careers with the plausible talent to play professionally. It produces a league full of players who have contributed years of high-level performances completely outside of the national team.
If you like Rose Lavelle, you’ll also love Vanessa DiBernardo, who plays for Chicago. Been enjoying Alex Morgan? Check out Lynn Williams on North Carolina. Or Kristen Hamilton, who just scored four goals last night. Or you might just remember Amy Rodriguez, who has been banging them in for Utah. Love Julie Ertz? Take a look at McCall Zerboni. Big fan of Sam Mewis? Andi Sullivan is right there with her. There’s Midge Purce, who’s been on a scoring tear. And Simone Charley who had to fight like mad to make it onto the field, and then delivered the goods when she got there. Like defenders? Take a look at Megan Oyster for Seattle or Amber Brooks for Houston.
Every one of these players has her own story, each of which is worth digging into. Think about how fun it has been to learn the backstories of the US national team players. Then multiply that by ten.
The league is balanced
In many leagues around the world, the talent is highly concentrated, leaving just a couple teams at the top competing with one another and running roughshod over everyone else. The NWSL isn’t like that. There certainly are better and worse teams—but just look at the table right now. Five teams are within four points at the top, with two more in touching distance.
And it’s not only about the teams at the top. Just last night, the two bottom teams in the league—Orlando Pride and Sky Blue FC—each managed wins over teams far above them in the table.
That’s the way this league goes. Every single game is a battle. There are no pushovers, no easy points. It’s part of why so many prominent international players choose to come here—because they know they’ll be tested in a way that just doesn’t exist anywhere else.
From a fan’s perspective, it’s also great. It means every game is tense. There might be a favorite and an underdog, but until the game is actually played you can never know if it will hold to form. It’s thrilling stuff, which is setting up to be one for the ages.
The fans are the best
There is something joyful and communal about following this league, even more than following international soccer–where allegiances always carry that weird tinge of nationalism. In the NWSL, there are obviously still fans of given teams, and certainly rivalries–as you would hope for in any good league. But there is a sense of togetherness as well. People are all rooting for each other, because we all know how fragile these things can be.
It can sometimes be daunting to jump into a new hobby or interest. Where do you begin? How do you get up to speed? Will the people who have already been there a long time be welcoming?
The NWSL community does a whole lot to ease those worries. Show up to a game, reach out on twitter, and you’ll get dozens, hundreds of folks who will be thrilled to welcome you in. Who will be happy to share inside jokes and explain references. Who will love nothing more than to share the history of their team, talk about favorite players, or anything else you’d care to discuss.
The NWSL is diverse, in all the best ways
The sports landscape is not especially welcoming to those who fall outside the traditional trope of the sports fan. It can feel alienating for those who aren’t in love with white, hetero, masculine tropes that dominate the sporting world.
The NWSL is a good home for anyone who feels that way. Which certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not a sports league. Despite the best efforts of many involved in marketing the league, this is not simply a home for young girls and their parents. It’s still a fun and raucous place. It’s just that the fun comes from a much wider range of sources.
Look at the crowd at an NWSL game and you’ll see queer people, trans people, men, women, children, people of all colors. And you’ll see supporters groups that work very hard to blend all these elements together to produce an inclusive, exciting environment which is genuinely fun for everyone.
There are very few places like this in our culture. Far too many of our social spaces are controlled by those who are loaded up with cultural advantage. Even if they try to be open and inclusive, the whole structure is still defined by white, male, cishet standards. But come to an NWSL game and you’ll experience what it’s like when those standards aren’t just taken for granted. It’s wonderful.
If you’ve been enjoying the authenticity of players like Megan Rapinoe, who express themselves in thoughtful and considered ways about complicated and important subjects, it’s worth seriously thinking about what kinds of structures make it possible for that sort of engagement. To think about what a difference it makes when many prominent players are queer. When many members of the media are people of color, women, gay, trans, etc. When many of the fans are as well. It all creates a support structure in which people can think about new ways to perform, discuss, and appreciate sports.
The culture of the NWSL–along with leagues like the WNBA and NWHL–is bringing something new and important to the sports landscape of this country. It’s a place where competition doesn’t have to mean abuse. Where tension and passion can flourish without having to be accompanied by exclusion. Where compassion adds to the thrill of victory and tempers the pain of loss.
How to watch
If you live anywhere near one of the markets, go and see a match live. Soccer is so much better in person. But if you’re not near a stadium, the league just announced a TV deal with ESPN, which will air 14 matches on ESPNEWS and ESPN2 over the rest of the season. If you don’t have those in your cable package, you might be able to get them through a streaming service like Sling or YoutubeTV, or you can simply pay for the ESPN+ service.
With matches on TV, you can also stop by your favorite local watering hole and ask them to put the game on. There’s no better way to find other fans and make new friends.
If none of those sound appealing, every other game streams for free at Yahoo Sports or on the Yahoo Sports App. If you live outside the US (or know how to convince your computer that you’re outside the US) you can also stream the games directly from nwslsoccer.com.
The national team players are expected to take a week or two after the conclusion of the World Cup to rejoin their teams. So if you’re excited for their return, you can target the games at the end of July. But every team in the league has plenty of exciting players, even without their US national teamers, so don’t worry too much about it.
Reign FC and the North Carolina Courage – 1st and 2nd in the league at the moment – meet on Saturday, July 14. It’s going to be a great game, and you should check it out.