The NWSL Players Association has filed a grievance over the league's denial of free agency to 22 players, the union said on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, the NWSL announced that at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 26, the free agency window will open for the first time. The mechanism for free agency was included in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the first in league history, that was ratified on Feb. 1.
"This is a historic moment for our league and a moment that was ten years in the making," said NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. "The NWSL and NWSLPA agreed to introduce free agency earlier this year through collective bargaining. This is a moment to reflect on how far the league has come and to acknowledge the incredible service of our players, investments from our owners, sponsors and broadcast partners, and critically, support from our fans."
The league's list contains 26 players eligible for free agency.
It added that "eligible players include all who have at least six years of service within the NWSL and have contracts expiring in 2022. Further, based on the league's interpretation of its agreement with the NWSLPA, players who have option-years on their contracts held by their respective clubs are not eligible for free agency until and unless the option year(s) is not exercised by the club which will occur by no later than November 15, 2022."
The NWSLPA contends that 22 additional players should also be included.
"While the players wish this historic moment was purely one of celebration, the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association disagree concerning the eligibility of 22 veteran players for free agency in 2023," read a statement from the NWSLPA.
The NWSLPA's list includes four players -- OL Reign defender Lu Barnes, Portland Thorns forward Christine Sinclair, Angel City FC forward Jasmyne Spencer, and Gotham FC midfielder McCall Zerboni -- who have played in every NWSL season.
In its statement, the NWSLPA said it "has a different point of view."
At the heart of the dispute is whether certain players whose contracts expire at the end of the year are actually free agents when the window opens.
Section 13.5 of the CBA states: "Commencing with the 2023 League Season, Free Agency is available for any player whose SPA is expiring and who has at least six (6) NWSL Service Years."
The Players Association contends that the contracts of these 22 players are expiring on Dec. 31, 2022.
Sinclair said: "As a player who has played in the NWSL for 10 years, free agency is a massive step forward for the League and the players. Free agency is the standard in every other soccer league around the world, and it will help attract top talent. NWSL should embrace that."
Meanwhile, Spencer said: "As someone who's been in this league since day 1, it is extremely disappointing that the league is trying to obstruct our right to free agency. Free agency was one of the most important issues that we fought for when negotiating the CBA. Players should have free autonomy over their own careers."
Zerboni emphasized the importance of player autonomy.
"I have poured my body, sweat, tears and years into the NWSL for its survival and growth," said McCall Zerboni. "It means so much to me to create and maintain a stable and thriving league for everyone, especially for future generations to come. After 10 years of service, I want nothing in return except to just finally be free and have autonomy over my own rights as a woman."
In a statement, the NWSLPA said that it expects the league to deny the grievance, at which point the NWSLPA intends to move to expedited arbitration.
According to the CBA, once the dispute moves to arbitration, the arbitrator will have 30 days to issue a ruling.
"Our veterans fought for the NWSL's future," the NWSLPA said in its statement. "Now it's time for us to fight for theirs. We look forward to being heard at arbitration."