The Season Starts Now

(Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

Last summer, during the World Cup in Canada, the NWSL and Fox Sports announced that 10 league matches would be broadcast; four regular season games on the Fox Sports GO app, followed by three other regular season contests and the NWSL playoff semifinals and finals on Fox Sports 1.

 After traveling back from Canada (and among varying stints of well-deserved rest and Victory Touring), the U.S. Women’s National Team players, as well as World Cup competitors from other countries, would return to their NWSL teams.

For those like me, without a subscription to the app or cable, the NWSL provided livestreams on YouTube. There, I watched as much of the second half of the league’s third season as I could every weekend.

There was no NWSL franchise in Los Angeles, where I live, or in Columbus, where my MLS heart will always belong. But two of my favorite players—Carli Lloyd, who wears number 10 and had a pretty good tournament; and Meghan Klingenberg, whose calm hustle and brilliant contributions on offense make her my favorite defender—were both on the Houston Dash, the newest NWSL franchise, owned by Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.

So while the entire state of California did not have a team, I did, halfway across the country in Texas. I’d have to add orange to my wardrobe.

The first post-World Cup streams, despite choppy video quality and occasionally disinterested-sounding announcers, were also free, and I’m glad the league provided them. The broadcasts improved as the season progressed—after the first few weeks I don’t remember having trouble following the gameplay because of poor video quality or buffering or any other production issues.

It was unquestionably worth investing time and attention, finally, in the top-flight professional women’s soccer league, then midway through the newest iteration’s third season. I’d love to attend some NWSL matches, but the closest in Portland would be 1,000 miles away. And so, as a fan, my best chance to watch my team is on the league’s YouTube streams. And, as a fan, I want to recruit other fans. And that means some homework.

***

The coverage of the 2016 NWSL College Draft was really excellent and commendable. Anchors Jonathan Yardley and Jen Cooper provided first-rate insight for all fans, recognizing that many of us are new to the NWSL entirely, or would not have heard of most of the players from their college soccer and/or national team careers, some already representing their countries in the World Cup in 2015.

You can watch the entire draft, and read Rachael Caldwell’s thorough team-by-team draft analysis at Our Game Magazine.

And I recommend watching the draft from January in Baltimore, too. You’ll see a contingent of Washington Spirit supporters in attendance, cheering loudest for their team’s picks as the players in attendance speak at the podium. You’ll hear from selected players themselves at the broadcast desk, speaking with Yardley and Cooper, their first introduction to the league’s audience. You’ll see how the 2016 editions of each team began to really take shape.

Going into the historic fourth season, there are plenty of stories and threads to track since the end of 2015—including the NWSL being the first women’s professional league to have a fourth season. Rosters will be in flux around the Olympics, for which the league will take a break for most of August. The 25-day break is less disruptive to the league than the World Cup, but still requires clubs to shift lineups and plan for even more potential roster combinations. And even with 10 clubs in the league this year, including the expansion Pride, there are still plenty of fans without a nearby team to call their own—all the more reason to discover your club for yourself.

This summer, I’m looking forward to the NWSL more than the Olympics. Among all the off-season activity, national team call-ups, pre-season matches, new kits, and returning stars, here are the major stories I’ll be watching this season, which kicks off tomorrow, Saturday, April 16th:

 Crystal Dunn’s prolific brilliance

If you’ve followed the matches of the USWNT summer 2015 Victory Tour, subsequent tournaments, and/or Olympic qualifying, you’ve seen Crystal Dunn score a goal or several. In 2015, Dunn collected 15 NWSL goals for the Washington Spirit and a bunch of awards, including her team and the league’s Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player titles. This is a huge year for Dunn in international competition—already making her mark on a national team with consistently absurd depth throughout the roster—but you shouldn’t be surprised if she leads the league in goals again for the Spirit.

FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign FC look for slightly different three-peats

A solid, solid FC Kansas City team, anchored by U.S. co-captain and three-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn leading a brilliant defense, looks to win their third consecutive NWSL championship this year.

The team maybe best exemplifying consistency and balance is also unfailingly fun to watch, but will be impacted by roster changes unrelated to national team call-ups. Midfielder Lauren Holliday retired a champion in 2015, as did defender Amy LePeilbet. USWNT forwards Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux—in her first season with FCKC after an off-season trade with the Western New York Flash—will both be taking time away due to pregnancy.

Still, the back-to-back league champions can be expected to have a serious chance at winning a third consecutive NWSL title—an amazingly difficult task in any sport. The fact that FC Kansas City could pull it off speaks to the quality of the club in a league that has a great deal of parity.

Laura Harvey—the only female coach in the league in 2015 and Reign FC’s head coach since the club’s founding—took Seattle to their second consecutive final after winning two straight NWSL Shields. U.S. stars Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo are two of the most prominent players in the world, but Reign FC’s stellar roster also features four players from the league’s Best XI last year: forward Beverly Yanez (9 goals in 2015); Welsh international Jessica Fishlock and Scotland’s Kim Little—instantly giving Seattle one of the best midfields in the league; and defender Lauren Barnes. Reign FC, able to be very selective in the 2016 Draft, should expect to not only return to the playoffs but also make a legitimate case to return the NWSL Final.

The Orlando Pride, team number 10

Establishing an expansion club as a serious contender is difficult under any circumstances, but expectations for the Orlando Pride are higher than they might otherwise be. Coached by former USWNT head coach Tom Sermanni and backed by the MLS’s Orlando City SC, the Pride clearly expect a lot from their inaugural season.

The club’s first steps included orchestrating trades for Alex Morgan and Kaylyn Kyle from Portland and Sarah Hagen from Kansas City. The Expansion Draft then brought USWNT back-up goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris from the Washington Spirit as the club’s #1.

Building around a prolific goal-scorer like Morgan, one of the most popular players in world football, and choosing Harris as their first keeper are smart moves for a new team. But they’ll face a tough schedule early as they begin to write their history.

The Pride’s first match of the season is, of course, against Portland Thorns FC. Away.

Dash On (and on)

Overall, the Dash roster looks much different from last season’s with the exception of a fantastic crew of midfielders: U.S. co-captain/reigning FIFA Player of the Year/previously-mentioned hero Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian—the youngest player on our 2015 World Cup roster—and Brazilian international Andressa all return. Add to that midfield Amber Brooks—who joined from Seattle Reign FC as part of the trade with Portland and Orlando—and who has played superbly this preseason.

Also returning: forward Kealia Ohai—the second overall selection in the 2014 draft—will look to build on her 4-goal, 5-assist campaign in 2015. Ohai, along with Chioma Ubogagu (signed from Sky Blue FC), and 2016 first-round pick and English international Rachel Daly played fantastic and near-seamlessly in their closing match of the Portland Thorns’ mini-tournament.

Even with Best XI defender Meghan Klingenberg, the 2015 Dash looked disjointed in too many matches during our late-season losing streak. The intensity of the World Cup (and subsequent USWNT Victory Tour) could certainly have had plenty to do with that—perhaps more than other clubs, the Dash had to adjust and re-adjust—but amidst the non-stop changes, the 2015 season ended just short of a playoff spot. Even with Kling leaving for Portland, the Second Newest Club retains an excellent core that gives fans plenty of reason to hope.

The Dash’s first pick in January’s draft, defender (or midfielder, or forward) Cari Roccaro, will join fellow first-round picks Daly and Canadian international Janine Beckie on the team after recovering from injury. And the team is only better as Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd return from international duties.

We play the Chicago Red Stars this Saturday at 8:30 Central Time. I know where I’ll be.

***

That’s not everything, of course. Whether the off-season meant a revamp or only fine-tuning an already-great team, there’s reason for optimism for all 10 clubs, those with the affiliation of MLS franchises or not.

Moya Dodd’s piece in the New York Times expertly reinforces what’s also true of the promise of the league: It matters that the NWSL receives the increased support it deserves—that the women’s professional soccer leagues that preceded it deserved—because you can’t claim to love The Beautiful Game if you have no interest in the NWSL.

Or maybe more specifically: You can love the game, but you’re missing at least half of the best players of the world.

But that’s to say nothing of the scant opportunities to watch televised matches, even if you have cable at home or somewhere else to catch a game, because most NWSL matches have not been televised.

Sarah Jaffe wrote for DAME Magazine last summer:

…the World Cup final on Sunday had the highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the U.S. on a single network. Yes, once again, that includes the men. Over 20 million people watched the game; the highest ratings were in Kansas City, St. Louis, San Diego, Denver and Austin, only one of which has a National Women’s Soccer League team.

What would those numbers have looked like if more games had been played on more broadly available channels? What would they look like if the NWSL were broadly televised? With only nine teams spread broadly around the country, there’s a lot of space uncovered, yet Fox Sports 1 will only air three regular-season games, plus the playoffs.

Maybe a cable network would be smart to expand to NWSL coverage. To my knowledge, plenty of sports networks air poker games and the occasional horse race. We really have no excuse not to have the top women’s professional soccer league in North America air more regularly on broadcast and cable.

Until then, I’ll watch as many matches as possible on the streams the NWSL and clubs provide, and I hope you do, too. I hope that we—particularly men who love the sport and are happy to celebrate the U.S.’ World Cup victories—stop missing out, and stop taking the league and its players for granted.

Even smaller things reflect this—how the web sites of NWSL clubs with MLS owners are sub-sections of the sites of the MLS teams, rather than presented as sibling clubs; a relative lack of jerseys and other merchandise for NWSL supporters on those sites, even days before the historic fourth season begins.

This, like the lack of television coverage, is all part of a self-justifying feedback loop. It sure as hell isn’t fair to the players who are notoriously underpaid, and as a fan, it’s frustrating.

As Jaffe detailed, soccer fans in this country don’t normally have the option to even ask if a bar could put an NWSL match on TV, because NWSL matches probably aren’t going to be on TV that day, that weekend, that month. I hope this is increasingly not true, and soon.

Two days before the 2016 season, the NWSL once again announced that a few late season matches and the playoffs will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and the network’s digital outlets—certainly welcome news, but the first of those games is September 7.

Don’t wait until September.

Watch the NWSL livestreams this season—the matches are on weekends—and follow your clubs and the league on social media (which, by the way, is fantastic.) If you can afford your favorite club’s jersey or scarf, buy one, too; buy another for a friend. If you can make it to the stadium because the NWSL plays in your city, all the better to cheer on the clubs in person.

If not, diehard fans of Manchester United and Spurs and Barça and Bayern and Juve and every other internationally-based club have always supported their teams across time zones and continents, and we can and should show up for NWSL clubs in the same way. You don’t even really have to leave the house.

Springtime may be particularly busy with sports, but I’m so glad it’s NWSL season again.

 

#DashOn

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Sam Vuchenich is a writer living in Los Angeles.