Can NWSL capture the post-World Cup buzz? Eight by Eight”s Andrew Helms reports from Boston
For the fair-weather fans that crammed Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium on Saturday afternoon to watch U.S. World Cup stars Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo of Seattle Reign FC take on the hometown Boston Breakers, weather and injuries did their best to spoil the proceedings. Carrying knocks, neither Rapinoe nor Solo made the cross-country trek to Boston, and 15 minutes before kickoff, a summer shower doused players and fans alike in healthy torrents of rain.
As the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) attempts to capture the spotlight currently shining on the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT), a soggy, starless affair was not the billed attraction. The three-year-old women’s league has marketed itself as the permanent home of Carli Lloyd, Julie Johnston, and the rest of the team that captured America’s flickering imagination for several weeks in July.
This push is as savvy as it is necessary. Women’s soccer in the United States is littered with the musty carcasses of failed leagues. For NWSL to thrive, they must properly harness the post-World Cup buzz. I went to watch the Breakers play Reign FC to see how it was going.
Thankfully, the rain cleared as the match kicked off, taking with it some of the choking humidity that had hung in the hot, August air. From the press box, I had a perfect vantage point to observe Seattle coach Laura Harvey. An English native who previously managed Arsenal Ladies FC, Harvey’s relentless sideline banter was matched only by her team’s ruthless press. Seattle hassled Boston’s overmatched midfield, cutting off passing lanes and forcing forlorn long-balls forward. In possession, Seattle moved the ball with clinical speed and creativity, finally scoring in the 24th minute off a corner kick.
For the Breakers, the post-World Cup period has brought both sell-out crowds and heavy legs. As the U.S. Soccer Federation has scheduled a slew of friendlies for the USWNT to capitalize on the World Cup’s afterglow, NWSL casino has been forced to rearrange its schedule to accommodate the national team obligations of its most famous players. For Boston, this meant that Saturday’s match against Seattle fell at the start of a one-week stretch where the team would play three games. After the match, Breakers coach Tom Durkin lamented the situation: “It makes no sense to me why the U.S. national team couldn”t go on their victory tour in September when the [NWSL] season is over.”
This week, Durkin’s team will fly to Portland for a mid-week meeting with Thorns FC before traveling back to Boston next weekend for a match with the Washington Spirit. “Luckily it’s a direct flight,” summed up a defeated-looking Durkin.
This tension reaches the heart of NWSL’s current conundrum. Marketing national team stars to attract new fans to NWSL games has been successful in the short-run (21,144 in Portland, 13,025 in Houston), but it’s unclear if a national team-centric strategy will bring the sustained attention and television deal that the league desperately needs to survive in the long-run. If done right, NWSL can succeed where previous leagues have failed, capturing a large enough fan base to remain relevant even in long summers between World Cups.
On Saturday, the balance felt largely right. The brief rain showers didn’t dissuade the sold-out crowd of families, diehards, and teenage girls alike, many of whom were wearing the matching jerseys of their club teams, coloring entire blocs of the stands in various combinations of reds and blues and whites. Though Boston does not have a marquee USWNT player like Lloyd, the crowd was decidedly supportive of the Breakers, launching into massive cheers with every Alyssa Naeher save.
The biggest roar came in the 34th minute as the Breakers clawed back from Seattle’s opening goal, responding with a well-worked sequence that saw midfielder Kristie Mewis level the score 1-1.
This momentum would prove to be short-lived. As the 2nd half kicked off, Seattle resumed their anxiety-inducing press that the Breakers could not solve, scoring on a penalty in 59th minute and dominating the run of play. A red card reduced Boston to 10 players later in the half, and even though the Breakers threatened to equalize in stoppage time (prompting the indefatigable Harvey to kick her bottle of seltzer water away in disgust) the result was never in doubt. Seattle held onto a deserved 2-1 victory.
The victory left Seattle alone atop NWSL’s nine-team league table while the Breakers fell into the league”s basement. With several weeks to go before the playoffs and Rapinoe and Solo on the mend, Reign FC will be disappointed with any result short of a championship. “I think these lot won”t be satisfied unless they win,” said a confident Harvey after the match.
After the final whistle, young fans clumped around field exits, hoping to capture the signature of anyone wearing a Breakers or Reign FC jersey. It didn”t matter that World Cup stars Rapinoe and Solo were absent; there were only smiles in “Autograph Alley.”
It was a reminder that there is a quiet magic in a soccer kit. Wearing it bestows the owner with an otherness, a foreign power that can be accessed with only a Sharpie. For the recipient, the signature becomes a living totem from a stadium dotting some distant horizon, a place they”ve glimpsed before, a place they dream of playing one day.
Their smiles were a reminder of why NWSL is too important to fail, and why their smiles — and the smiles of their parents and friends and coaches — will need to return to “Autograph Alley” next season, and the season after that, and the season after that.