The inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season has been run and won, and while it is still early days for what is a long term project, the initial signs are that it is a case of third time lucky. Two previous attempts to establish a professional women’s league in USA foundered after a few short years, but high quality on-field product, strong crowds and an innovative structure are all positive signs emanating from the first season.
The USA, Canada and Mexico federations pay the salaries of approximately 50 players allocated to the league, giving clubs relief on some of their largest expenses and providing a vastly different model to that which had gone before. Crowd support across the league varied, but at the top end Portland Thorns attracted an impressive average in excess of 13,000 to their home games, solidifying the north-west city as a football hotbed, and providing further cause for economic optimism. Notably, the Thorns were the only side affiliated with an MLS club.
On the field a smattering of high quality imports combined with North America’s strength in depth helped provide a high standard across the league. The stars continued to align right until the end of the season in what was a dream conclusion for organisers. The championship game saw the well-supported Thorns visit Western New York Flash, winners of the last WPS season, and a match-up of arguably the league's two most popular players - Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach – all played out in front of a national television audience.
Thorn in New York’s side
Despite their absence from the season finale, it was FC Kansas City that led the pack for much of the season. Playing their first ever competitive season, the mid-western side lacked the star power of other teams, and their drop in form over the final weeks of the season proved costly.
Western New York, buoyed by the goalscoring form of superstar duo Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, went top of the table for the first time on the penultimate day of the regular season, and finished clear of Portland and Kansas on goal difference, with Sky Blue FC a further two points adrift.
Missing the play-offs were Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Seattle Reign and Washington Spirit by some margin, however Portland coach Cindy Parlow Cone said the gulf was small in reality. "The parity across the league helped it be successful," she said.
Though the Flash hosted the championship game at their Rochester base in upstate New York, it was Portland that took home the honours. Tobin Heath scored the opener and Portland, despite the dismissal of Kat Williamson, found a second in injury time from iconic Canada striker Christine Sinclair.
Individual success stories
For all the headline-grabbing attackers across the various clubs, it was Kansas midfielder Lauren Holiday (formerly Cheney) that claimed the goalscoring laurels. A tally of 12 goals, combined with an impressive nine assists, saw the 25-year-old a goal clear of Wambach and fellow USA striker Sydney Leroux. At the other end of the field Canada No1 Karina LeBlanc consistently grabbed headlines for Portland, although it was Nicole Barnhart that was named goalkeeper of the year.
With the initial season successfully run, the focus now will turn to future incremental growth. "This is the platform to set whatever standards we have to use from this year, and to use that to make improvements and to do even better if 2014," said Cheryl Bailey, executive director of the NWSL.
Future expansion of the league from its current eight teams will undoubtedly also be a future consideration. “Soccer is the most popular youth sport in America, and nearly half the players are girls," Sky Blue president Thomas Hofstetter said. “It should make anyone involved in professional soccer in the US at least think about it. It is a growth opportunity.”