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The NWSL returned from their short international break this weekend with a full slate of six games, though several teams are still missing their international players. Despite the league’s break in games technically running from June 20-30, four of the the five major FIFA tournaments happening this summer haven’t even kicked off yet.
WHY DOES THE NWSL PLAY GAMES DURING THESE BIG TOURNAMENTS?
When the NWSL released the 2022 regular season schedule, a major highlight of their press releasewas that they managed to schedule “a significantly smaller number of contests during FIFA windows.” That might be true compared to previous years, but for me, all this means is that the bar is very low. It’s still unclear why teams are playing league games, which can and will impact teams’ playoff positions, during these major tournaments.
Realistically, the NWSL has been sub-par in several aspects of its schedule creation for years now. The league infamously releases the schedule quite late. Then, there’s the questionable overlap between Challenge Cup and regular season play paired with little rest time between games. For instance, the Washington Spirit played 11 games – or one-third of the maximum number of games NWSL teams can play in 2022 – in the first 42 days of their season.
It’s possible that the answer lies in the logistics around scheduling 12 teams, many of which share fields and stadiums, to play a balanced schedule. Still, other leagues seem to be capable of creating sensible schedules, so I don’t really buy it.
DOES IT HURT THE LEAGUE AND ITS PLAYERS?
I think it does. Though some teams are losing six (Portland Thorns FC), seven (Houston Dash, Washington Spirit), or eight (OL Reign) of their players, they still have to compete for regular season points. Twenty-four games are scheduled during this July window, so teams will be playing four games (~18% of the season) without some of their top players.
Now, the temporary departure of international players does open the door for other players to get meaningful minutes and gain experience. Portland Thorns FC’s starting goalkeeper Bella Bixby had several breakout performances when A.D. Franch was away with the United States women’s national team during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics last season. Bixby ultimately earned the Thorns’s starting job and has been first on their depth chart ever since.
Actual soccer aside, I also think the NWSL product changes when the international players aren’t on the field. National team players undoubtedly draw crowds and viewers to the league’s games (read: ‘the Alex Morgan effect’). It makes me wonder whether there will be a dip in attendance and/or viewership during this window – it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
WHAT CAN THE NWSL DO TO FIX THIS?
There’s no perfect answer to this question, either. I think the NWSL missed a huge opportunity to schedule the Challenge Cup during these international tournaments.
There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the Challenge Cup because the league kicked off the regular season before the Cup final was even played. Teams were forced to reschedule their regular-season openers with only a couple of days to spare, as Challenge Cup finalists were decided the Wednesday before the regular season began. That’s bad both for teams’ preparation and for fans who had planned to travel to and attend games that were ultimately moved.
Players also seem to be on board with having a league tournament during international tournament windows. Lynn Williams (USWNT, KC Current), Alex Morgan (USWNT, San Diego Wave FC), and Rachel Daly (ENG, Houston Dash) recently suggested that the Challenge Cup should take place in the summer instead of at the season’s start.
Obviously, the NWSL didn’t heed that advice in 2022, so it will be interesting to see whether they change moving forward..
Another probably less-than-ideal solution to having so many players missing during international tournaments would be a longer NWSL break. If the league paused for the entire month of July, the regular season would need to be extended and the playoffs would have to take place at a later date. The current season, which began on April 29th, will see its regular season come to a close on October 2nd. The 2022 NWSL Championship is slated for October 29th. With a month-long break in the mix, the regular season and playoffs likely wouldn’t wrap up until November.
There probably isn’t a perfect solution to the NWSL’s scheduling problem. Regardless, players and the league as a whole would benefit if there were fewer regular season games played during international tournaments. Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to accomplish this feat. Hopefully NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman and Co. will have the answers ahead of the 2023 season.