US Soccer continues to schedule friendlies and international camps outside of FIFA windows. The NWSL and its fans deserve to be treated with more respect.
Fans of women’s soccer always know where to go for the schedule. And today, Meg Linehan had us covered: outlining US Soccer’s plan for international games through the rest of 2021.
As usual, US Soccer plans to schedule games outside of the FIFA calendar. As usual, this is going to force NWSL teams to lose plenty of stars at a time when there is no contractual requirement for their release. Per FIFA rules, clubs are only obligated to release players during specified windows listed on the FIFA calendar. Any other time, they are free to deny permission.
US Soccer can forcibly remove players from their club teams
But that doesn’t matter much when it comes to the US national team. Why? Because most USWNT players are still contracted with US Soccer, who then cover their NWSL salary. Technically, players like Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, and Julie Ertz are not even employees of their club teams. Which means those clubs have no real say over their status during these unofficial windows.
In past years, this has meant extended international camps before big tournaments, in addition to the off-calendar games. And we should expect the same again this year. Most likely, the US Olympic roster will be settled in mid-June after the Tournament of Nations camp. That group of 18 (along with four alternates) may get a week or ten days with their club teams in late June—maybe squeezing in a game, possibly two—before they return to US camp for friendlies and then presumably stay right through until the start of the Olympics.
The result: US-contracted players will likely be gone from their clubs for two full months—maybe playing one or two games in the middle—in order to attend a tournament that is only 17 days long.
The NWSL deserves better
US Soccer likes this arrangement just fine. These extended camps give the team a lot of time to practice together, and may be a part of the explanation for the US team’s extraordinary success in recent years. And many of the players probably like it, too. Club soccer has grown in prestige a lot over the past six years—compare to 2015, for example, when Abby Wambach simply sat out the NWSL season in order to save herself for the World Cup—but it’s no secret that some players will prioritize international success over club results if the two are put into direct conflict.
But it’s still a bad deal, and increasingly feels like a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. The NWSL and the national team ought to be collaborative institutions, which lift each other up so that both can fly even higher. But it’s never really worked that way. Instead, the league is generally regarded as a necessary mechanism to keep the national teamers fresh, but an inconvenience to be brushed aside any time there is a conflict.
It is true that national team absences can open up opportunities for squad players to see action. And we all saw during the Challenge Cup last summer that the NWSL is perfectly capable of putting on a wonderful show even without many of the biggest stars. But there will always be plenty of chances for squad players—whether from injuries, planned rest, league expansion, etc. We don’t need artificial removal of the biggest stars to make this happen.
More importantly, it’s about respect. The NWSL can survive just fine without these players. That doesn’t justify US Soccer forcing the question. As a fan of the league, I find it deeply frustrating that the success of the national team is treated as so evidently essential that it’s worth pushing aside whatever other institutions might potentially be in the way. The teams of the NWSL, who work hard throughout the year and with far less acclaim, deserve better.
The winds of change
However, change does seem to be in the air. The new generation of national teamers includes a lot of players who have grown up with the league and seem to truly care about it. And the league itself is beginning to escape the shadow of the national team. Earlier this year, Commissioner Lisa Baird announced that US Soccer was no longer the official manager of the league, instead operating as a ‘partner.’ Furthermore, clubs are now permitted to use allocation money to sign national team players directly—which Portland has done with Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan. Those contracts also free the club from the obligation to hand over those players.
More US players are also plying their trade abroad these days, with Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle and Abby Dahlkemper currently at Manchester City while Tobin Heath and Christen Press are at Manchester United. The England season will be over by mid-June, presumably eliminating any potential conflict of interest this time. But the underlying reality of national team players on contracts with club teams does lessen the power of US Soccer to insist on these unofficial camps.
In previous years, for example, the US would schedule ‘Victory Tour’ games after the conclusion of a major event, which would also fall outside the FIFA windows. They haven’t done so this time. That’s progress! And it may stem from the reality that a full third of the likely Olympic squad could be withheld from a game if the US had tried to schedule it. As the economics change, the national team's leverage certainly grows weaker.
With another Collective Bargaining Agreement on the horizon, maybe these unofficial camps will be included. It's even possible (though perhaps unlikely) that the whole system of allocated players will be abandoned or at least restructured. Here's hoping that some kind of change is on the table.