Events this month:
Two friendly friendlies
The start of the post-Solo era?
The U.S. women have two games scheduled in September. Both should be easy wins, no matter who is — or isn’t — in goal.
On Sept. 15, they play Thailand in Columbus, Ohio. (7 p.m. CT, ESPN2).
Three days later, they play the Netherlands in Atlanta. (6 p.m. CT, FS1).
When scheduled, these were probably intended as the first legs of an Olympic victory tour, a chance for U.S. fans to welcome home the conquering heroines.
Neither team qualified for this summer’s Olympics.
Both were in the 2015 World Cup. Thailand finished 1W-2L-0D in group play and did not move on.
The Netherlands finished 1W-1L-1D in group play, qualifying for the knockout round, and got promptly knocked out by Japan.
NWSL regular season ends
With U.S. Olympic flop, there’s been no attendance bounce
The final weekend of regular-season games in the National Women’s Soccer League is Sept. 24-25.
The top four teams will go on to the playoffs, with the championship game scheduled for Oct. 9 in Houston.
With four games to go in the 20-game season, the top contenders for those four playoff spots are, in order, the Washington Spirit, the Portland Thorns, the Chicago Red Stars and the Western New York Flash, with the Solo-less Seattle Reign and FC Sky Blue still in the mix.
All in all, it has not been a stellar year for the NWSL.
The dismal showing by the U.S. women’s team at the 2016 Olympics denied the league the post-Rio bounce that it almost surely would have enjoyed if Team USA had come home triumphant, as it did after last summer’s World Cup.
Right after the Olympics, Caitlin Murray of Fox Sports wrote, “there wasn’t a sudden burst of ticket sales like we saw after the Women’s World Cup. Crowd sizes stayed close to each team’s average — some were up a bit and some were a bit down.”
Overall, 2016 attendance is up slightly:
But that small jump is misleading. This year, the league added an expansion club, the Orlando Pride, which has been exceptionally successful, trailing only the Portland Thorns — year in and year out the league’s most successful franchise — in attendance.
Like the Thorns, the Pride is affiliated with a companion Major League Soccer team. And the face of the Orlando franchise is the lovely and beloved Alex Morgan.
If the Pride’s attendance is removed from the 2016 figures, the average for the remaining nine NWSL clubs is 5,009 — actually down a bit from what those nine clubs drew in 2015.
The Thorns continue to carry the league. The next most popular team after Orlando – the Houston Dash — sold less than a third as many tickets as Portland.
At the bottom, the attendance figures are simply embarrassing.
Sky Blue FC, in northern New Jersey, is drawing fewer than 2,00 fans to home games.
The Red Stars, in the country’s third-largest city, draw fewer than 3,000 — with a roster that includes Julie Johnston and Christen Press, two of the best and most popular young players on the national team; Alyssa Naeher, who could succeed Solo in goal for the national team; and Katie Naughton, who’s from the Chicago suburbs and who played at nearby Notre Dame.
Poor-to-middling attendance isn’t the league’s only problem. On the public relations front, the NWSL has taken it on the nose a few times this summer:
• First, it allowed a game to be played in the outfield of a minor-league baseball stadium — a venue unfit for a YMCA youth game.
“It’s far past time,” she wrote, “that the women in our league start being treated like professional athletes—otherwise, we might as well just admit that the NWSL is just a semi-pro league, and stop pretending like it’s the best women’s league in the world.”
• Then Solo walked out on her team, the Seattle Reign, after getting bounced from the national team.
• Even Carli Lloyd was the subject of some unfavorable headlines after she took her time returning to her team, Houston Dash.
With the Olympics over, there’s not another international tournament that will draw wide attention to women’s soccer until the 2019 World Cup. So for the next two years, the National Women’s Soccer League, if it’s going to make it all, will have to make it on its own.
In the face of all that, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush says he remains optimistic.
He’s even hoping to expand the league, possibly adding two teams, he tells Fox Sports. In particular, he’s looking at big-market California cities.
Regarding the absence of a World Cup or Olympics on the near horizon, he says:
You can look at it two different ways. Yes, there’s no competition we can gain a bump from, but there’s also no competition that takes away from the focus being on our league. It’s a challenge, but it’s going to be fun for our clubs to realize that for the 2017 and 2018 calendars, our league is the most important competition domestically.
And as Caitlin Murray notes:
No women’s league has lasted as long, expanded into as many markets or had as much financial stability as the NWSL.
Sept. 6 – Jill Ellis turns 50
Sept. 7 – Briana Scurry turns 45
Sept. 25 – Randy Waldrum turns 60
Sept. 30 – Lauren Holiday (photo) turns 29