Ten years ago this month, the National Women's Soccer League was born. Many hoped for, but few could have imagined, where the league would be now, at the end of the 2022 season. Standards have improved on and off the field thanks to expansion, team valuations have increased 10-fold, trophy races are as competitive as ever, and record numbers have been set for attendance, broadcast and sponsorship.
Amid all that growth, however, more serious problems remain, and unimaginable lows accompanied the highs this year. Former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates found abuse in the league to be "systemic" after a year-long investigation, and the impending release of a joint investigation between the NWSL and NWSL Players Association is expected to reveal more.
For all the good, 2022 will also be remembered as an inflection point for a league coming to grips with its demons. Here is a look at the highlights of another year of the NWSL, a league no longer being asked whether it will survive, but one that is under a more intense microscope than ever.
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Yates report exposes NWSL's underbelly
The dichotomy of the NWSL was on full display in early October.
One day after the NWSL's thrilling regular-season end, the report of former deputy U.S. attorney Sally Yates' investigation into the league became public. It confirmed in grim detail the alleged actions of three former coaches in the league: Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly. It also revealed how many people in positions of power either failed to protect players or actively enabled the monstrous actions of those former coaches.
Consequences for those actions are still to come, but 2022 will be remembered as the season where accountability started.
Chicago Red Stars players collectively released a statement in October calling for longtime principal owner Arnim Whisler to sell the team after "the extent of his dishonesty became clear" in the Yates report. Portland Thorns supporters continue to demand Merritt Paulson sell the team, while a local group claims to have raised close to $9 million in pledges to make the Thorns (and MLS' Timbers) supporter-owned teams.
Both Whisler and Paulson were among the eight founding owners of the NWSL in 2012, though it's difficult to see how either of them makes it to opening day of 2023 in the roles they've long held.
For Chicago, change would mark a long overdue reset for an underperforming major media market that always operated like a mom-and-pop organization. Portland is the original standard-bearer in attendance and support -- the Thorns led the league in attendance every year prior to 2022, and supporters created a culture unlike any globally. A prospective replacement for Paulson would have high expectations to meet, but a strong foundation on which to build.
Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang's takeover of the team from Steve Baldwin earlier this year was also part of a shift in the NWSL. So, too, was the arrival of commissioner Jessica Berman, who took over in April and promised greater accountability with players.
A few years from now, the Yates report will be viewed as a major step toward a new era in ownership and people in positions of power. At least, it should be.
NWSL sees more parity, not less, despite expansion
The NWSL is the most competitive league in the world, full stop. Up until the final two weeks, seven teams were eligible to win the NWSL Shield, the regular-season award that in most other places around the world would represent the league title. Three teams had a shot at it on the final weekend.
OL Reign won the Shield for a third time, grabbing the top spot in the league on the final weekend after failing to sit atop the table at the end of any week in the five months prior. The Kansas City Current fell short of the Shield on the final weekend but made it to Saturday's NWSL Championship, which the Thorns won 2-0. Kansas City finished in last place in 2021, an indication both of the team's turnaround and the fine margins of the NWSL.
The league saw the addition of two expansion teams this year, San Diego Wave FC and Angel City FC, but rather than dilute talent in the league, they brought in more talent and made the league more competitive.
The Wave became the most successful expansion team in NWSL history and led the league for half the season but got bounced from the playoffs by the eventual champion Portland Thorns in the semifinals. Los Angeles-based Angel City missed the playoffs, but fared better than most expansion teams do.
Expansion fuels a big business boost
The NWSL finally opened for business in California in 2022 to start a new chapter in league history.
Angel City and its star-studded ownership group led the league in attendance, averaging over 19,000 fans per game -- the first time a team other than Portland set the mark in that category. Angel City reached 16,000 season tickets sold by the end of the campaign and achieved a peak single-game gate revenue of over $1 million, as ESPN reported last week.
The San Diego Wave also set a new single-game attendance record in September, attracting 32,000 fans to its first game at Snapdragon Stadium, the team's full-time home. The Wave then set an attendance record for an NWSL playoff game.
These are numbers the NWSL could only dream about previously, and several legacy NWSL teams are still a long way from that reality.
Angel City and San Diego showed other investors why women's soccer can be big business, leading to a rush of dozens of groups interested in one expansion spot for the 2024 season. That lucky investor group will pay at least $20 million to enter the league, as ESPN reported last week. That team will join the return of a franchise based in Utah, which will pay roughly $2 million, as ESPN first reported in June. Current franchises are worth 10 times what they were a few years ago, a bar set by Kang's $35 million purchase of the Spirit.
Attendance is up 70% year-over-year, and Berman said last week that league sponsorship revenue is up nearly 90% year-over-year. As Berman told ESPN recently, attendance and sponsorship are inherently connected. The league is also planning to cash in on rising media rights fees, and a record average viewership of 915,000 fans for Saturday's championship will only help its case.
Portland's very different third title marks change
The Thorns are perennial title contenders, but this year was different -- both on and off the field.
Rhian Wilkinson was in her first year of her first head-coaching job after Mark Parsons left last year, and the Thorns were without U.S. internationals Lindsey Horan (on loan to Lyon) for the entire season and Crystal Dunn (maternity leave) for most of it.
Japan international Hina Sugita and rookie midfielder Sam Coffey stepped up as important new additions, and Sophia Smith tallied 14 regular-season goals to lead the Thorns' league-best attack. Meanwhile, 39-year-old Christine Sinclair not starting in the semifinals marked the first time in the Thorns' decade-long history she didn't start a playoff game -- a tangible changing of the guard.
Off-the-field context made this triumph feel different, though. The Thorns were a focal point of the Yates report, and throughout the postseason players faced external questions and internal conflict about how the leaders of their organization failed them. Wilkinson said that she wished her players did not have to speak about the trauma because they just want to play. Smith asked the fans to keep showing up, because they were "one of the positive things we have left in Portland."
Paulson has been a fixture on the sidelines at Providence Park in Portland, the home stadium of the Thorns, and one of the most public facing owners in the NWSL -- but his absence from the team's championship run also indicated how much has changed. Not only was he not seen at any of the Thorns playoff games, but he skipped the Thorns rally with fans at Providence Park to celebrate with the team's new NWSL trophy. This title, more than ever, was truly one for the players.
A long offseason awaits in Portland. Paulson stepped down as CEO of the Thorns and Timbers in October but remains the owner/operator of the teams. In his statement announcing that he will step down as CEO, Paulson said: "Given the complexities involved on several levels, finalizing the correct path forward will take time."
USWNT's new generation shows promise
Smith took home MVP honors for both the season and the championship game. She admitted that her casual shrug to celebrate her 4th-minute goal in Saturday's NWSL Championship was a subtle response to those did not think she deserved the MVP award, she confirmed afterward.
Wave striker Alex Morgan, this season's Golden Boot winner, and Red Stars winger Mallory Pugh were the other major contenders for the season MVP award. Morgan scored 15 of the Wave's 32 goals in the regular season. Pugh scored 11 goals and added six assists in a dominant run. Smith, Morgan and Pugh are also the preferred starting front three for the U.S. women's national team right now. That is good news for the U.S. ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
Smith's season could be remembered as the breakout that leads to a rich legacy. At 22, she is the youngest MVP in league history. Morgan, 33, is on the opposite spectrum, finally putting together the complete, dominant club season that long eluded her, to complement her impeccable international career. Pugh's exceptional season was an extension of a strong 2021 campaign, when she finished second in MVP voting.
NWSL's landmark first CBA alters landscape
So many of the NWSL's longstanding problems that are now being exposed can be traced back to power imbalances. Players finally secured a collective bargaining agreement in 2022, and its impact will be felt for years to come.
The agreement runs through 2026, but it also serves as the foundation for the next deal. Top-line items include raising the minimum salary from $22,000 to $35,000, with scheduled increases through 2026, plus the league's first foray into free agency, which is currently underway and limited to players with expiring contracts who have at least six years of experience in the league.
The CBA was put to the test quickly. An arbiter ruled in favor of the NWSL Players Association in October over a dispute between the union and the league regarding the free agency eligibility of 22 players. Berman praised the process, despite the league losing the dispute.
"I am proud of the manner in which the parties used the arbitration procedure," Berman said. "This was an honest and respectful disagreement, and we utilized the dispute resolution mechanism in our collective bargaining agreement which is fair and impartial. Thanks to our labor agreement all parties can make their case to an independent and neutral third party and respect the decision."
Benefits of the CBA go beyond the obvious, too. There is a no-questions-asked policy for mental health leaves, and players are entitled to 42 days of vacation, including a minimum of 32 straight days in the offseason. There are various other player welfare standards set, from travel and accommodations to team staffing, which seem basic but previously never had any way of being enforced.
The NWSL's best rookie class ever
The NWSL is not a league for first-year professionals -- that was the thinking in the past, anyway. This year's rookie class smashed that theory.
Wave center-back Naomi Girma won Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year, the first rookie in league history to win multiple year-end awards. Her superlative play earned Girma her first caps with the U.S. national team, and she increasingly looks like a center-back who must start for the two-time defending World Cup champions.
Girma faced stiff competition for the Rookie of the Year award from Coffey, an integral starter in Portland's run to the title, and North Carolina Courage forward Diana Ordonez, whose 11 goals are a new rookie record.
Then there was Racing Louisville midfielders Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell, who played their way into U.S. call-ups. There is Kansas City Current utility player Alex Loera, a playoff hero who thrived in midfield but who also started as one of three center-backs throughout stretches of the season. Forwards Kelsey Turnbow and Amirah Ali brought energy to the San Diego Wave's attack, as did 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw, who scored in each of her first three professional games.
All of these players are stars in the making, and the list of impressive rookies in 2022 runs much deeper, in part because some players (like Coffey and Loera) were drafted in 2021 but finished their college eligibility, a quirk in the system created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The circumstances created something of a double rookie class.
A few years from now, this class of first-year professionals will likely be stars of the league.