A Move Across the Pond: The NWSL vs. European Leagues

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It’s that time of year again–the offseason. It’s a time when the shape of our teams are changing as players and coaches move around. Some will stay in the NWSL, content to stay where they are or potentially switching clubs. But others will consider a move across the pond– such as U.S Women’s National Team midfielder Morgan Brian, who recently signed a two-year contract for Olympique Lyonnais in France. A player’s decision to leave their league is never a simple one. Players give up something when they leave the NWSL– but European leagues also have a lot to offer.

One of the biggest benefits players gain from moving to Europe is the opportunity to play in Champion’s League. In general, European teams often play more frequently and in multiple competitions. But Champions League is something special. It gives players an opportunity to challenge clubs from other countries and really test their skills against some of the best clubs in the world. It’s something that many players dream of competing in, and it can have a very strong emotional appeal to players.

But while Champions League may be a particularly competitive competition, many of the European domestic leagues are not. In leagues such as the FA WSL and Division 1 Feminine, there are usually one or two clubs that dominate. They have the money to invest in their team and buy the best players around the world, while many of the teams around them do not. This often builds great rosters, but it also leads to mismatched opponents. For example, in their last five league matches, Lyon has scored 24 goals and allowed none. With the exception of their match against PSG, they won each of those matches by four or more goals. In fact, Lyon has only allowed two goals in the whole season as of January 1st.

By contrast, the NWSL is a much more competitive league. Every week is a fight, and blow out scores that are common for Lyon are much rarer in the NWSL. The biggest margin of difference in the NWSL is five goals, and even that is an unlikely occurrence. This stems partially from salary caps, which restrain the teams with the most money from simply buying the best players. Limiting the number of international players on each roster also helps keep the league balanced.

Another appeal of moving to European leagues is 12-month contracts. Ella Masar McLeod talked about this issue when she left the Houston Dash to join FC Rosengard with her wife, Erin McLeod. She noted that the 6-month contracts and lower salary paid by the NWSL can make it difficult for players to make ends meet. Many NWSL players go to the Australian W-League in the offseason, offsetting the problem a bit. But the W-League doesn’t pay a high salary and players often aren’t taking home a lot of money.

Some players may also want to go to Europe to learn a different style of play. Some say the game in the United States is much more physical, while the game in Europe is much more technical. There aren’t many European players that play in the NWSL or vice versa. So when a player does make the swap, it allows them to learn from a whole new group of people. Staying close to home has it’s advantages too– especially when it comes to the national team players who want to stay on Jill Ellis’s radar. Going to Europe separates American players from everything going on at home– sometimes that is good and sometimes it’s not, depending on what point a player is at in their career.

Overall, there are many pros and cons to going to Europe vs. staying in the NWSL. The pay is often better in Europe, there are more leagues to compete in, and players get the opportunity to experiment with their style of play. But there are benefits to staying in the NWSL too– such as staying on the national team radar and playing in a more competitive league. Ultimately, it is up to each individual player to make their own decisions and different things will be right for different people. But don’t be surprised if we see more stars make the hop across the pond this offseason.