This week, we present part 3 of our annual 2023 NWSL regular season preview, in which we finish with the tenth through twelfth place finishers in 2022: Racing Louisville, Washington and NJ/NY Gotham FC.
We also have some general league news and expansion team news for 2024 and updates on the U.S. minor amateur summer leagues, with more plans to launch Division 2 professional women's leagues in 2024 and beyond, including interesting comments from Major League Soccer (MLS) Commissioner Don Garber, who brought up the idea to the media on his own volition. For our other previews, see: Part 1 in The Week in Women's Football: Big preview of NWSL - ins/outs and predictions - Tribal Football) and Part 2 in The Week in Women's Football: NWSL preview - Kanu mega signing; Angel City struggles - Tribal Football.
Orlando Pride (5-7-10, 22 points, Tenth)
Former English Premier League player (with Middlesbrough) and English youth international Seb Hines seems like a good young coach with a solid vision for the team and he is also important as the first permanent Black head coach in league history (former Jamaican international head coach Hue Menzies was the NWSL's first ever Black head coach last year for Gotham FC on a temporary basis to end the season). While former coach Marc Skinner has Manchester City chasing a title in his first full WSL season in charge, he was handicapped in Orlando as he lost a full regular season and Challenge Cup campaign in 2020 because of COVID, only playing four games that season... Hines will be striving to take the Pride to the playoffs for only the second time since the club joined the league in 2016.
The Pride tried to bring in Brazilian international midfielder Debinha as a free agent from North Carolina in the off-season, but she later went to Kansas City, where she said that she was impressed with their training site and stadium plans (see: The Week in Women's Football: Debinha explains choosing Kansas over Arsenal; NWSL transfer wrap; expansion chat - Tribal Football). Their long-time Brazilian superstar Marta re-signed with the Pride but she was out last season with an ACL and honestly hasn't been at her typical world class level the last few years. Will she recapture her skills and positive leadership ability or go into Marta Funk Mode, which doesn't help the team? Early signs are good as she is back and preparing for her sixth WWC Finals for Brazil and played in the SheBelieves Cup this Spring.
Orlando acquired 26-year-old Brazilian forward Adriana, signing her to a three-year deal following her transfer from Corinthians. She has scored 12 goals in 39 games for Brazil and should team up well with Marta. Adriana impressed with Tiradentes and Rio Preto before joining Corinthians of Sao Paulo in 2018, where she won four Brazilian league titles and two CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores Feminina crowns. She is almost a certainty to make Brazil's 2023 World Cup squad. She was named to Brazil's 2019 World Cup squad, only to miss out due to injury, after debuting with the national side in 2017.
An important re-signing through free-agency was NWSL original midfielder Erika Tymrak, who signed a two-year deal. Tymrak won NWSL Championships with FC Kansas City in 2014 and 2015 and a W-League (now A-League Women) title in 2017 with Melbourne City. She was capped at the youth level and three times by the U.S. full national team a decade ago.
The Pride selected defender Emily Madril No. 3 overall in the 2023 draft from Florida State, where she won two National Championships. Originally, Madril planned on returning to FSU for the fall 2022 season but changed her mind when long-time head coach Mark Krikorian left the school in a contract dispute and then became the general manager of the Washington Spirit. She wanted to play professionally but missed the 2022 NWSL draft that January. Rather than wait until 2023—after playing that summer for Racing Louisville's W League affiliate, with four goals in nine games—she wanted to play in the NWSL in part because she wants to eventually play at the full national team level, after time at various national youth levels. Madril explained: "I just think it's a really competitive league. You watch the games and you never know how the game is going to turn out. I think every team is really competitive and [to play there] you have to be on your game 100%. [The U.S. WNT] still have scouts overseas and watch the overseas games, but I think it's a little bit easier and a little bit better to play in the U.S. to try to get that exposure [particularly since U.S. WNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski came out of the NWSL]."
Following some lengthy negotiations between her agents and the league, the NWSL eventually offered Madril the chance to sign a three-year contract directly with the league. This contract allowed her to be loaned out to play overseas for a few months while still retaining her eligibility to have her playing rights distributed in the 2023 NWSL draft by whichever team selected her, though they would have to honor the contract terms that the league negotiated with her. The next step was finding a temporary home abroad and she quickly signed with Gothenburg, Sweden's BK Häcken FF through December. Madril explained: "It all happened in the span of like five days and then I was on a flight to Sweden… It worked out really well." While in Sweden, she made four appearances and scored a goal in a 7–1 victory against AIK Fotboll Damer of Stockholm.
The Pride proceeded to make two more first-round picks, selecting U.S. youth international forward Messiah Bright, Texas Christian University's all-time leading goal scorer (50 in 103 games) and defender Tori Hansen, who scored eight goals and led North Carolina's defense.
The Pride did sign defender Celia Jimenez of Spain to a two-year extension; she scored twice in 18 games last season. The 27-year-old has 55 appearances across all competitions in the NWSL, with 22 of them coming while representing the Pride. Celia was originally selected with the 36th-overall pick in the 2018 NWSL College Draft by the Seattle Reign and has also spent spells at Sweden's FC Rosengård of Malmo, Australia's Perth Glory and France's Olympique Lyon. The Spanish international has appeared 23 times for the Spanish National Team and was selected to Spain's 2015 and 2019 World Cup rosters.
The Orlando Pride's duo of Canadian international goalkeeper Erin McLeod and Icelandic midfielder Gunny Jónsdóttir have announced their departure from the NWSL as they will be headed to Jónsdóttir's home country of Iceland. McLeod and Jónsdóttir, who have played for the Pride since 2020 and 2021, respectively, were married on January 2 of this year and are stepping away from the NWSL to begin the next chapter of their lives overseas. Coach Hines said about their departure: "Both Gunny and Erin have been incredibly important members of, not only the Pride, but of the NWSL as a whole. Their impact, skill and professionalism will be missed both within our locker room and in our community, but this next step of their lives is an exciting one that we are also celebrating. On behalf of the entire organization, we thank both Erin and Gunny for everything they have given to the club and wish them all the best in this next chapter together."
McLeod (39) made 28 appearances in goal for the Pride, with five total shutouts. In total in the NWSL, including time with the Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash, she played 75 games played with 13 clean sheets and 293 saves. Internationally, the Edmonton native is a member of the Canada women's national team and most recently a gold-medal winner at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. McLeod has made four Women's World Cup and three Olympic rosters with Canada, also winning the 2012 bronze medal in London.
Jónsdóttir (34) was acquired by the Pride via trade ahead of the 2021 season from the Utah Royals, making 48 appearances with five goals and two assists in Orlando. Jónsdóttir's 100th NWSL appearance came in the team's final match of the 2022 season, with 52 of them with the Royals. In total, Jónsdóttir scored seven goals and added eight assists since joining the NWSL in 2018. She has played for Iceland since 2011.
Forward Darian Jenkins (28) announced her retirement after a six-year career, the last spent with the Pride. Midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard (27) signed a two-year contract with the San Diego Wave after two years in Orlando. She won a national championship at UCLA in 2013 and played on loan in Australia and France.
Off the field, the Pride made a brilliant signing in Haley Carter as their new GM/VP of soccer operations. She was a former assistant coach for the Houston Dash and for the Afghanistan and the Antigua and Barbuda national teams. A former Marine posted in Afghanistan, she helped many national team players leave the country as the Taliban was invading Kabul. She adds huge integrity and a love for the women's game to the Pride. She is also a lawyer.
The Pride should be improved with Seb Hines having a full year to implement his plans. The key is how well they will do during the WWC with Marta and Adriana gone. They may need another year to make the playoffs in a very competitive league but should be much improved in 2023.
Washington Spirit (3-10-9, 19 points, Eleventh)
Washington Spirit midfielder Marissa Sheva was called up to the Ireland Women's National Team for the first time for the China friendly in Spain in February (a 0-0 tie). This was Sheva's first-ever senior international call-up (see: The Week in Women's Football: Real Madrid land Linda Caicedo; Aminata Diallo joins Levante; Matildas WC sellout - Tribal Football). Through her first season with the Spirit, Sheva played in eight matches. In four seasons at Penn State University, Sheva totaled 13 goals, nine assists in 92 appearances. Prior to her college career, Sheva was a member of the U-14 and U-15 U.S. Women's Youth National Teams.
Trialists at the Washington Spirit's preseason camp this year included 17-year-old midfielder Melina Rebimbas (committed to play for North Carolina in the fall) and 15-year-old forward Chloe Ricketts. Ricketts joined the Spirit for preseason training camp in January after being invited as part of a group of non-roster players, traveling with the team to Florida as well as training in Leesburg, Virginia. The young player impressed in training with her competitive drive and ability to compete with players at the professional level. The Washington Spirit then signed Ricketts to a three-year contract with an option for 2026.
Ricketts, a current high school sophomore, officially becomes the youngest contracted NWSL player ever, passing Portland Thorns FC's Olivia Moultrie by a mere three days. Ricketts will join the NWSL through the league's new Under-18 Entry Mechanism.
New head coach Mark Parsons said: "This season, we remain very focused on building a roster that can help us succeed now while also investing in the future. Chloe has shown great quality with and without the ball and has an incredible intensity in everything she does. The vision and infrastructure of our club make this signing possible, and we look forward to Chloe developing and becoming an important player and teammate for our team."
With full support from the club, Ricketts will continue her education virtually throughout the season. Per the NWSL's new Under-18 Entry Mechanism, Ricketts will occupy a full roster spot, will reside with a parent or legal guardian until she turns 18 years of age, and may not be traded or waived before age 18 without both her and her parent/legal guardian's consent; she also may not be selected in expansion drafts. She is from suburban Detroit, Michigan. She competed for AFC Ann Arbor (which also has a team in the W-League) in 2022 after becoming the youngest player in the youth club's history at 14. In 2021, Ricketts played with the 2007 Boys Ann Arbor Tigers that won the Michigan State Cup and the National League Great Lakes Conference as well as the 2006 Girls team that advanced to the Elite Clubs National League finals.
The Spirit signed French midfielder Ines Jaurena to a one-year deal. Jaurena (31) has played in France for ten years, most recently for Olympique Lyonnais Féminin of Division 1 Féminin. Prior to joining Lyon last year, Jaurena's senior career in France spanned stints with Grand Paris Seine Ouest 92 Issy, Paris FC and FC Girondins de Bordeaux. Across 174 appearances since 2013, Jaurena has tallied ten goals in Division 1 Feminin.
Originally from Paris, Jaurena has also competed for numerous French national teams. At the youth level, she played for the U-17, U-19, U-20 and U-23 teams before making her senior team debut in 2017. Jaurena has tallied 56 international appearances across all teams. Jaurena also played four seasons of college soccer at Florida State from 2009 to 2012, where her head coach was current Spirit GM Mark Krikorian. Jaurena said upon joining the Spirit: "I am so excited to join the Washington Spirit. I have followed the club since my former Florida State teammate Tori Huster joined the team. It makes sense for me to come back to America and join such an impressive professional league. I was delighted when the Spirit reached out to me and I cannot wait to see the magic of Audi Field." Huster is back for her 11th straight season with the Spirit, and has spent a number of off-seasons playing in Australia.
Another new signing in December was Canadian international defender Gabrielle Carle, who has played over 30 full internationals for Canada, including at the 2019 WWC Finals in France. She was an alternate on the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal winning side in Tokyo and played last season with Kristianstads in Sweden. She played collegiately at Florida State University.
On February 25, the Spirit announced that defender Anna Heilferty will miss the entire 2023 season due to a knee injury. Heilferty recently signed a new two-year contract with the Spirit with a team option for 2025. She played in 21 regular season games last year, her second in the league, after playing 22 in her rookie season of 2021, when the Spirit won the league title.
An important off-season signing was goalkeeper Aubrey [Bledsoe] Kingsbury—the 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year and Championship game MVP that season—with a new three-year contract and a team option for 2026. Her backup, two-time U.S. Olympic Games Gold Medalist in 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) Nicole Barnhart, was also on the side that finished second at the Germany WWC Finals in 2011.
Bledsoe told the media in late March just before their home opener on March 26 [a 1-0 win over OL Reign on a Trinity Rodman goal] that [Head Coach]: "Mark Parsons has been clear on our identity, tactics and of play. I've never been more proud to play for the Spirit with [Owner] Michelle [Kang] at the top; the coaching staff looked for players first that are great players but also players who want to be here. We're given everything we could need to succeed. I love where we are heading."
Parson said it will take four games to get the side feeling comfortable as: "It is a new team." Bledsoe made her 100th NWSL regular season appearance in the win over OL Reign to open the season.
Some interesting draft choices are English youth international forward Nicole Douglas, who played at Arizona State University, Gonzaga University goalkeeper Lyza Bosselmann—who in her four years at GU, allowed the fewest number of goals (47) and registered the lowest goals against average (0.86) in program history—and Alabama forward Riley Tanner (see: The Week in Women's Football: WC Playoffs; Riley explains Panama choice; PNG appoint ex-Man City defender Prior - Tribal Football), who just recently helped Panama qualify for the Women's World Cup Finals (see: The Week in Women's Football: Canada Soccer controversy; exciting World Cup playoffs still need reform - Tribal Football).
On the coaching side, former player Angela Salem—who played professionally from 2010 in the WPS through the 2021 season and spent four seasons playing for new Spirit head coach Mark Parsons in Portland—is staying on staff, while Morina Imaizumi, a Japanese native who spent many years assisting Krikorian at FSU, joins as the team's new player development coach. The Spirit also brought in Mami Yamaguchi as an assistant coach, joining from Detroit City FC of the USL's W-League. She also played at Florida State University and has 18 caps with Japan's WNT. She played for over a decade professionally in the U.S., Japan and Sweden, with over 130 appearances. Dawn Scott, who formerly worked with the U.S. women's national team when it won the 2015 and 2019 World Cup titles, is another new addition as the Spirit's first-ever director of performance, medical and innovation.
Off-the-field during the offseason, Washington Spirit announced ObviouslyDC.com as its 2023 preseason training kit partner. An online resource hosted by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), ObviouslyDC.com provides information and resources on starting and growing a business in the nation's capital. The club began wearing the ObviouslyDC.com training kits during training camp in Florida. Throughout the year, the Spirit and the District of Columbia will partner to promote the city as an inclusive, culturally rich and livable community.
The ObviouslyDC.com website outlines key topic areas that are important for business growth alongside strengths of Washington, D.C. that underscore commercial viability. Users can also learn about the various resources and programs that support their business goals, as well as connect with key stakeholders that encourage job creation and growth in Washington, D.C. The website also provides a concierge service that helps users navigate the process of becoming a business in the District. In 2023, the Washington Spirit will play all their home games at Audi Field—the home also of MLS's D.C. United—for the first time.
In fun news that is good for collectors of sports bobblehead dolls, which are still rare in women's soccer, the Washington Spirit released a Trinity Rodman bobblehead exclusively as part of the club's 2023 season ticket holder benefits. Rodman, a standout forward entering her third professional season, will be featured as the first-ever Spirit player to have a bobblehead made in her likeness.
Rodman said about the new proposal: "It's pretty amazing to me that I'm going to be the first Spirit player bobblehead ever. I'm looking forward to sharing it with our fans and can't wait to kick off the 2023 season at Audi!"
The Spirit selected Rodman with the second overall pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft from Washington State University, where she never played collegiately because of COVID. She was the NWSL's Rookie of the Year in 2021 when the Spirit shocked the league and won the title after just scrapping into the playoffs. Rodman then signed an historic new contract with the Spirit that made her the highest paid player in NWSL history. In the same offseason, she earned her spot as a mainstay of the U.S. Women's National Team roster, tallying two goals and three assists in 15 international appearances to date. Rodman was named a finalist for the Ballon d'Or Féminin, which honors the top female soccer player in the world. Through two seasons with the Spirit, Rodman has totaled 16 goals and 12 assists in 55 league appearances. She added to that total with the only goal in the Spirit's 1-0 win over OL Reign to open the 2023 regular season.
Mark Parsons should quickly right this ship, which as reigning league champions, crashed down the table to finish second from the bottom in 2022 and fired coach Kris Ward—and then used two interim coaches in Angela Salem (one game) and ex-WPS title winning head coach in 2010 Albertin Montoya (five games)—after coaching abuse allegations against the 2021 championship winning head coach. One should never discount a Mark Parsons-coached team in the NWSL (forgetting his misbegotten short stint in charge of the Netherlands WNT, which was a bit of a meltdown) and, despite finishing second from bottom in 2022, this team should sail into the playoffs in 2023 and could challenge for a top two berth, with a chance to repeat their 2021 championship.
NJ/NY Gotham FC (4-1-17, 13 points, Twelfth)
Gotham FC started the first-ever free agency period in the NWSL by welcoming free agent signing (the first ever signing at the time in the NWSL) U.S. women's national team defender Kelley O'Hara, who was on the shortlist for Player of the Year by FIFPRO globally for the 2022-2023 campaign, who left the D.C. Spirit. The club also added goalkeeper Abby Smith (29), who last year played in Portland, and defender Kristen Edmonds (35) from Kansas City. The club re-signed Nigerian international Ifeoma Onumonu. They took part in several 2023 College Draft-related trades, which yielded in return Yazmeen Ryan (24) from Portland and U.S. international forward Lynn Williams, the latter also from Kansas City, who has won three NWSL titles in her career. Their number four overall pick in the 2023 draft, Jenna Nighswonger from Florida State, is extremely talented and can play in midfield or at forward; she signed a three-year contract.
For internationals, NJ/NY Gotham FC signed Iceland Women's National Team forward Svava Rós Guðmundsdóttir to a two-year contract. Guðmundsdóttir scored six goals in 22 games last season with SK Brann in Norway's top flight, the Toppserien, as her club finished first and qualified for the UEFA Women's Champions League. She has played for the Icelandic Women's National Team since 2017 and has scored two goals in 36 appearances.
Gotham FC Head Coach Juan Carlos Amorós said: "Svava is a versatile forward with the ability to score and create goals. She occupies the back line and constantly applies pressure. She has the knowledge to understand different moments of the game and the physical ability to get behind the opposition back line and be effective in the box. Svava also has a lot of valuable experience in international competitions. She is a team player and I'm confident she will help us in our growth as a team at Gotham FC."
She started her senior club career at age 15 with Valur in the top-tier Icelandic league and Guðmundsdóttir's most prolific season was in 2018 when she scored 14 goals in 21 games with Roa IL of the Toppserien, which finished with a 10-2-10 (W-D-L) record for seventh place. She has also played for Breiðablik in Iceland, Kristianstads DFF in Sweden, and FC Girondins de Bordeaux in France.
Guðmundsdóttir said: "I'm very excited to be joining Gotham FC and to have the opportunity to represent such an incredible organization. The club's mentality about pushing boundaries and putting women's soccer at the forefront of professional sports, as well as their desire to build a championship-contending team, is extremely inspiring to me. One of my career goals has always been to someday play in the NWSL, and I could not think of a better club to do this with than Gotham FC. This league is incredibly competitive because of the quality of players on every team and the intensity of every match. Not only am I looking forward to the level of play, but also the quality of infrastructure that is setting the example for women's soccer everywhere."
Defender Kelly Ann Livingstone was released by the club in February and then signed with Danish club Fortuna Hjørring. She played at Georgetown University and in two years, had no NWSL appearances with Gotham but played on their WPSL side Gotham FC Reserves.
Gotham started preseason training at IMG Academy in Florida. The team lost 2-0 in a scrimmage against the Orlando Pride and then beat Florida State 4-0 a week later. On March 2, the team lost 2-1 to the Chicago Red Stars in a closed-door friendly. At training camp, midfielder Taryn Torres suffered a season-ending ACL injury. She was the number 21 pick in the 2021 NWSL draft and played 13 games last season, after playing with the Gotham FC Reserves. Torres (23) is a U.S. youth international and played at the University of Virginia.
Spanish native head coach Amoros did a nice job in taking the Dash to the playoffs last season, a first for the club. He was a co-coach at Tottenham Hotspur in the WSL and then was a head coach at Real Betis in Spain before coming to the NWSL. He should have the club playing consistently by the end of the season. Expect Gotham FC to bring in one or two internationals mid-season, perhaps after the WWC, by leveraging Amoros' international contacts. If they miss the playoffs this season, it won't be by much and they will be well positioned for postseason play in 2024. Keep in mind that the club has made the playoffs only twice in the NWSL so expectations are low, particularly after finishing bottom of the league in 2022 with only 4 wins and 13 points from 22 games. Plus, Amoros is on a three-year deal and should be given the time to build a competitive squad in the New York City metro region.
Other NWSL News
Salary Levels Caps are Set and Other Signing Changes
Each NWSL team has a minimum of $1,975,000 available to spend on a 22-26 player roster for the 2023 season. This includes the $1,375,000 salary cap plus $600,000 in Allocation Money. Unused Allocation Money from 2022 may also be carried forward to 2023. This represents a 25 percent increase from the 2022 campaign. Introduced in 2019, Allocation Money is financial credit that a team may purchase within limits defined by the league each year or acquire from another team through a transaction. Allocation Money may be used to reduce the salary cap impact of a player's salary, pay a transfer fee or loan fee when acquiring a player outside the league, or trade to another team.
Introduced in 2022, the NWSL established a new entry mechanism for players under the age of 18 wishing to enter the league. With the consent of the player and their parent or legal guardian, teams may place eligible players on an Under-18 Entry List; each team is allowed two U-18 players (see more above with the D.C. Spirit's signing of a 15-year-old).
Commissioner Berman Talks About the State of the League
Just before the launch of the 2023 NWSL season, Commissioner Jessica Berman talked to the media, which coincided with her one-year anniversary with the league. As the league was about to set a record for a single game with 32,000 at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego to see the Wave defeat the Chicago Red Stars 3-2 on March 25, she emphasized that: "We're up 20 percent in season-ticket holders on a league-wide basis and we've already surpassed the number of sales for [the] opening weekend and we still have five days to go."
With New York-based Berman's hire, the NWSL league offices have moved from Chicago—where it originally started out in 2013 in the U.S. Soccer Federation offices—to Madison Avenue in New York City, and made a number of new hires. Berman explained: "These little things actually matter in terms of having people feel professional and valued, and also from a staffing perspective, there have been multiple teams that have doubled and tripled their investment in their staff."
She felt that the Madison Avenue presence would greatly help facilitate sponsorship and television negotiations.
To the latter, she said that players consistently have mentioned to her that they felt that the quality of broadcasts were poor, and mostly only available through streaming services: "They really felt that it needed to be a priority for the league to invest in broadcast production and for the game itself to be able to showcase in a way for fans to be able to appreciate their athleticism and how great the NWSL is."
The NWSL is currently in negotiations over a new broadcast deal that will take effect in 2024 and has had to add more cameras at games because of VAR, which began with the 2023 opening games—the first women's league in the world to implement Video Review.
Berman said: "This [VAR] is a really big deal, not just because we know that we have to, and are committed to elevating the quality of officiating in our game. It requires significant investment and our board has authorized that investment… Historically, the way the league has approached growth and business has been sort of on its back foot, perhaps because we didn't have the infrastructure or subject matter expertise or confidence to let a proper process get us to the right result. And I think, if anything, what we've learned in the last 11 months is that the market will tell us our value so long as we give it the appropriate opportunity to produce that value."
The growth of the league office and support for sponsors and league teams is a huge jump for the league and takes it away from the era—only a few years ago—where clubs were run on a shoe-string or borrowed resources from an aligned men's team, with a temporary or bush-fix mentality.
Utah Royals Officially Rejoin the League for 2024
The Utah Royals will rejoin the NWSL next season, along with another expansion team [which, as expected, was later announced to be from the San Francisco Bay Area], to bring the league to 14 teams for the 2024 season. Utah's name remains the same, although the Royals' branding has been refreshed with new owners, after the original owner was banned for his racially insensitive remarks and charges of creating a hostile environment to women. Because of an agreement made when the team moved back to Kansas City for 2021, the Royals will pay only a $2 million entry fee, far less than the $50 million expected from the other expansion side.
The Royals ranked second in NWSL attendance with five figure averages in the two full seasons the team operated. Utah also hosted the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, which cost an estimated $1 million, and made the NWSL the first U.S. team sport—men's or women's—to return to play at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first Utah Royals franchise had replaced the original FC Kansas City franchise, which won two league titles in 2014 and 2015 under now U.S. WNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski.
San Francisco Bay Area is the 14th Team to Join the NWSL for 2024
The NWSL is expanding to the San Francisco, California Bay Area for 2024, which will be the third women's professional football league franchise in the area, joining the long defunct Bay Area/San Jose CyberRays (WUSA from 2001-2003) and FC Gold Pride (WPS in 2009 and 2010). The team's majority investor is Sixth Street, a global investment firm that is active in professional sports, including holding stakes in the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA and football's Real Madrid and Barcelona. The most visible partners are four area former USWNT players: Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner, who all played and/or coached at Santa Clara University.
Wagner is a current television analyst on men's and women's soccer. The club has not yet announced where they will play but MLS's San Jose Earthquakes' purpose-built soccer stadium PayPal Park is the likely home. The new ownership group has said that they will spend up to $40 million on a new training facility. The expansion fee, which goes to the league and is shared with existing clubs, is thought to be $53 million. Angel City and San Diego Wave, last season's expansion sides, each paid in the $2 to $5 million range for their franchises. The tenfold plus increase in franchise fees show that there is huge marketplace interest in the league, which is great to see.
League Commission Jessica Berman emphasized this point when she said: "The number of bids and the increase in the league's expansion fees are indicative of both the demand that exists for women's soccer in the professional sports landscape and the validated growth trajectory of our league. We said at the start of the expansion process in July 2022 that we would be intentional in seeking out strong markets and ownership groups that not only had the structural integrity for our league to thrive, but also demonstrated a genuine commitment to investing in and creating first-rate organizations on and off the pitch."
The league hopes to add two more franchises within a few years, with Boston and Tampa, Florida most frequently mentioned.
News from Other Leagues in North America
Don Garber, Major League Soccer Commissioner, Discusses Possibly Adding a Women's Division 3 Professional League in the Future.
Long-time MLS Commissioner Don Garber talked to the media ahead of their 2023 season openers in mid-March and raised the issue of the women's game, which was quite interesting as he brought up the topic of his own volitional. The league shares ownership of three NWSL teams--the Houston Dash, Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride —while others play in stadiums owned by MLS clubs--including Angel City FC, OL Reign and NJ/NY Gotham FC. Garber did leave open the idea of the MLS entering into the women's game, something that they had explored before the launch of the WUSA (2001-2003—see below).
Garber focused on the professional women's Division II level, which is completely open right now: "We have been thinking very hard about what role MLS should play in women's soccer. We have been very focused on being as good as we possibly can be, and we're still in a growth phase. So, we're laser-focused on doing what we have to do in getting that right. That being said, I see no reason why MLS Next [second/third division professional—MLS Next Pro--and youth development leagues started in 2020 as the league pulled teams out of the USL Championship and launched its own professional league, with 21 teams in 2022 and will have 27 in 2023] should not have a girl's component to it. If we are building the infrastructure to have tens of thousands of kids playing at an elite level, why re-create that and have somebody else incur that expense? We ought to be able to figure out a girl's component of that, and whether we do that on our own, or whether we do that with the NWSL, we ought to be able to figure that out."
Garber certainly left open the possibility of building out a women's counterpart to MLS Next Pro: "With MLS Next Pro [MLS' developmental or reserve league] we're building a third division in our country. [Soon,] we'll have a hell of a lot more teams than we have today. And as we're going out and building professional soccer at that level, in many, many markets outside of the MLS world, there's no reason to think that at some point that there shouldn't be an MLS Next Pro women's division. Whether we do that on our own or whether we do that with the NWSL is still to be seen. But it makes sense, as we think about 'the MLS way' that is all about efficiency and productivity, and trying to lead, and lead with our resources, we ought to be able to figure out a way to further the growth of the women's game. We have no plans on doing that today, but we ought to be thinking about how to do that tomorrow."
According to Soccer America, MLS Next Pro will kick off its second season on March 25 with 27 teams, as seven more MLS-affiliated clubs have joined [only D.C. United and CF Montreal won't have second teams entered in MLS's Division 3 league in 2023]. Non-MLS affiliated Carolina Core FC is slated to join league in 2024 and MLS Next Pro President Charles Altchek said last year that its long-term vision is to add 10 to 20 non-MLS affiliated teams in the coming years.
MLS has had a bit of a tortured relationship with women's professional soccer in the States, going back to the days before the launch of the WUSA (2001-2003) and even prior to their launch. Originally interested in starting a women's professional league on their own, MLS was accused of trying to hinder the efforts of other groups—an issue that this author will look back on in a future column. Garber's comments were a little out of the blue but there are many groups exploring this new, open space in women's football below Division I's NWSL [including a group in Canada, USL's W-League, WPSL, UWS and the men's NISA]. It will be interesting to follow, but I expect that one of the women's leagues will beat MLS to the punch, but MLS could quickly leverage their new MLS Next Pro franchises in multiple cities if no league steps up to control the space.
WPSL Pro New Division III Women's Soccer League set for 2025
In early February, the Women's Premier Soccer League announced that it will launch WPSL PRO, a professional Division III women's soccer league in the United States, which is tentatively planned to kick off in 2025. Sean Jones, WPSL President said: "We are ecstatic to announce WPSL PRO and to further grow our commitment to women's soccer through the launch of this new professional league. We have been in such awe and admiration for the continued growth of the women's game in America and feel that our launch of a professional league at the D-III level can achieve massive success for the sport and for all the women and young girls who play and enjoy the world's beautiful game."
The WPSL PRO plans to launch with 10 teams and looks to grow to more than 24 teams by 2030, with soccer activities potentially beginning in some form as early as 2024. In addition to operating WPSL PRO, the WPSL will continue to elevate and expand its summer amateur league number of teams [with a 16-conference alignment comprising 131 teams in 33 states in 2023, including 32 expansion teams, which is typical every year for the league that allows organizations to come and go, and remains the largest women's soccer league in the world] as well as its WPSL U-21 division, which will continue to serve as a proving ground for young players looking to advance into the collegiate and pro ranks. In initiating at the D-III level of professional play, the WPSL PRO sees a tremendous opportunity to fill in the gap between the large base of women's amateur and pre-professional soccer clubs and the top tiers of pro play.
Regarding the amateur WPSL, the regular season opens play on May 11 and concludes on July 9. The 2023 WPSL postseason will kick off the second weekend in July, in order to be able to free players up to return for campus pre-season training for the fall Collegiate season. The WPSL's annual team budgets range from $20,000 to $76,000, for administration, operations, venue rental and marketing.
The WPSL also has a new commissioner in Kendra Halterman, who recently took the role and has been with the WPSL almost from the beginning of the league in 1998. She began playing in 1999 with the Utah Spiders, then joined the Las Vegas Shooters. In 2008, she and two others started their own club, Sparta Women in Utah, which was eventually folded into the MLSReal Salt Lake organization.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey