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Beau Dure

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Lessons From A New Women's Soccer League

Posted: 10/18/2013 4:56 pm

Women's soccer is one of those sports that has to be spectacular to make the mainstream media.

That could be a spectacular performance on the big stage of the Olympics or the World Cup, which itself can launch a couple of people over the tipping point of fame so that we remember the names -- Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Or it could be the spectacular demise of a league -- the 2003 flameout of the ambitious WUSA just before the World Cup or the 2012 collapse of WPS amid Deadspin's fascination with the flame-throwing Dan Borislow.

The National Women's Soccer League includes a couple of the same teams and owners as WPS. But it's designed to be resistant to such heat. The budgets are low. The salaries are mostly low, though U.S. and Canadian national team stars get their pay from their federations. The risk is low.

So when we say the first NWSL season was uneventful, that's mostly a good thing. Casual sports fans may have gone through the year without realizing that Morgan and Canadian great Christine Sinclair won the league's first title with the Portland Thorns, holding off Wambach, two-time Olympic hero Carli Lloyd and the Western New York Flash. But underneath the radar, the league had some success stories -- good games, breakthrough players and some good crowds, particularly in soccer-mad Portland.

Here's what we learned:

1. A men's team can be a trustworthy partner. The Portland Thorns averaged 13,320 fans through the season, more than three times the league average. The presence of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers isn't a coincidence. The teams shared a stadium, staff, marketing and fans. Over the years, the women's soccer community has been skeptical of partnering with the men's game -- overseas, plenty of women's teams have suffered from being second fiddle to their club's men -- but the Timbers-Thorns model worked well enough for other clubs to consider it for themselves.

2. U.S. national team players are tough to beat. In MLS and in women's leagues, U.S. stars haven't always had the best seasons. Players who look immortal in international play can look ordinary on the smaller stage. That hasn't been the case in the NWSL. Wambach and Lloyd had terrific seasons. Morgan came up big at times on a star-studded Portland team.

3. But some lesser-known national team players are breaking through. Lauren Holiday (formerly Cheney) took league MVP honors. Becky Sauerbrunn was the league's defender of the year.

4. And some new talent is emerging. Erika Tymrak and Leigh Ann Robinson earned callups for a U.S. game just after the NWSL season.

5. The gap between pro and college is growing. Tymrak, who spent her high school years playing pickup games with players from the U.S. under-17 boys teams, was one of the few rookies to excel in the league. She was voted rookie of the year, followed by two players -- goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and forward Sydney Leroux -- who already have national team experience. NWSL teams play a technical style that the U.S. national team wants to see but college teams typically don't have. College players can be subbed out of a game when they're tired, and they're often able to take 2-3 touches on the ball before passing. NWSL games require one-touch ability, and players who can't do that are quickly exposed.

6. Social media have become simultaneously vital and dangerous. Women's soccer embraced social media long ago -- WPS touted Twitter as a means of info for the league itself and its players. Today, players can reveal things on social media even as the mainstream media debate whether to report them -- see the flap over Wambach's recent wedding to Sarah Huffman. Women's soccer players, coaches, reporters and fans are all active on Twitter and often Instagram, sharing information while occasionally veering into stalker territory.

7. A hard-core fan base is emerging. Sure, your local NWSL crowd is likely to have a bunch of tweens screeching out the names of their favorite players and seeking autographs. But look a little closer, and you'll likely spot a supporters group that mixes die-hard support with blunt assessments of their home team's performance. Just like the men's game.

The women's game still isn't the men's game, and that's never going to be the goal. A typical NWSL game isn't going to be as physical as an MLS game or as frenetic as an English Premier League game. And the fan bases for women's and men's soccer may overlap without ever being exactly the same.

The end result is a sport that may have, at long last, found a comfortable niche it can occupy in the "down years" between Olympic and World Cup years. And that could make the Olympic and World Cup years that much more entertaining, with more seasoned players taking the field.

 
 
 

Follow Beau Dure on Twitter: www.twitter.com/duresport

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