When the U.S. Women's National Team announced a friendly match against South Africa for next Saturday, American women's soccer fans had plenty to be excited about. It was a first-ever meeting against a new opponent and it would serve as an important tune-up before the Olympics in Rio.
But then it became apparent that USWNT coach Jill Ellis asked the players to report for a slightly longer-than-expected camp, which was less cause for excitement. It meant pulling players away from their National Women's Soccer League clubs earlier than initially thought -- and forcing players to miss an extra week of NWSL games, yet again.
It's a paradoxical problem: U.S. Soccer founded the NWSL and funds its front office operations and yet, U.S. Soccer continually makes decisions that seem to negatively impact the NWSL. But as much as fans are unhappy with the amount of time USWNT players miss in the NWSL, the problem doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.
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This weekend is a prime example of the difficult balance U.S. Soccer must strike between the USWNT and NWSL. Eight of the league's 10 teams have games, but because national team camp started Friday, all of those teams are without their USWNT players, the biggest stars of the league.
It's frustrating for the league's clubs, and it doesn't make the national team look great either in the eyes of NWSL fans. There's no simple solution, but the USWNT and the NWSL need to find a way to co-exist without stepping on each other's toes more than is necessary. After all, the success of one should benefit the other.
Ellis could've waited an extra two days for players to arrive in camp, NWSL fans argue -- those extra two days with the USWNT probably won't affect the team's chances in Rio much. But that may not be the most practical solution for Ellis, who is using this camp to make final decisions before naming her 18-player roster for the Olympics.
"It was kind of up in the air in terms of that game," midfielder Tobin Heath said of whether the USWNT camp would pull her away from the Portland Thorns' match this weekend. "But I also think it's important to give [the national team] players a break -- we've all been go, go, go since the World Cup.
"I'm kind of bummed about it, but obviously our focus has to be on the Olympics and making sure we're ready for that."
It's easy to joke that U.S. Soccer both runs the NWSL and somehow seems to ignore the NWSL's existence -- and that may be how it looks sometimes. But just because U.S. Soccer has made having a stable women's league a priority doesn't automatically make it the federation's top priority. The women's national team should take precedence and there is nothing wrong with that.
But still, it seems the USWNT and NWSL need to do a better job with communicating. If they aren't developing their schedules side by side, they should be. A little more of a heads-up could've gone a long way toward building a contingency plan in the NWSL schedule. If the teams could've played a midweek game with their full rosters, many probably would've preferred that.
"You've got to respect that the national team has to have a preparation," Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. "I feel that if we knew those dates as a club and league, then could we have squeezed all those games [scheduled for this weekend]? Could we have just put them midweek somewhere else? If we could have done that, then we wouldn't be talking about it.
"When you look at the schedule, it's a tough thing."
In an effort to avoid disruption due to the Olympics, the NWSL has taken off the entire month of August -- but if the USWNT does well in Rio, USWNT players probably will be at risk of missing another chunk of the season due to a victory tour. That's what happened after the Women's World Cup last year. If it arises after Rio, though, the USWNT and the NWSL should work together on a schedule that makes sense for both sides. Otherwise, the NWSL will miss out on their share of what should be a significant post-Olympics bump.
For this latest scheduling blip, it's hard to know what U.S. Soccer could've done differently. The July 9 friendly does not fall within a FIFA window, so the NWSL couldn't have expected USWNT players to be away -- unless the league got a heads-up from U.S. Soccer. Since the NWSL front office is located inside U.S. Soccer's headquarters, this sounds reasonable, and that's why some fans get upset. But many times, these dates aren't just set by U.S. Soccer but also are reached with television networks. So, there's nothing surprising about the USWNT playing games outside FIFA windows since they do this routinely, driven by broadcast commitments.
Too often though, it's a perception problem: It looks like U.S. Soccer doesn't care enough about the NWSL to the fans who want the league to succeed. Despite the fact that U.S. Soccer pays the NWSL salaries of all USWNT players to ease the financial burden of their clubs, NWSL supporters just want to see the players in games every week.
The reality is, USWNT players are going to need to miss time in the NWSL and there's no doubt that success in Rio this summer will be a big boost for women's soccer in this country. But looking more long-term, a successful domestic women's league is a pretty important boost too. That's why U.S. Soccer and the NWSL should find a solution, whatever it is, to better integrate the national team and the league.
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