Making the Case: NWSL All-Star Match

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In many ways, the National Women’s Soccer League has never looked better. With last season’s post-World Cup surge in attendance, the addition of a tenth team in the Orlando Pride, and player acquisitions like Lindsey Horan and Raquel Rodriguez (not to mention the return of fan favorite and big personality Natasha Kai), fans are eagerly awaiting the unprecedented fourth season of American women’s professional soccer. Should the USWNT do well at the Rio Olympics, it will only heighten interest in the league.

Which is why it could be the best time to introduce something many have been calling for since the league’s 2013 inception: an All-Star Match.

The lack of such a game, an institution in nearly every other major sport, has been puzzling. Both the first two incarnations of top-tier women’s professional soccer in this country, the WUSA and the WPS, held two All-Star games apiece with varying formats.

The first All-Star match took place in 2002 after the second WUSA season ended. Split into North versus South, the South won with an MVP performance from Abby Wambach in her rookie year with the Washington Freedom. The following year, in what ended up being WUSA’s final season, the All-Star match was moved to the middle of the season due to the 2003 Women’s World Cup, with a team of Americans falling to a team of WUSA internationals.

WPS’ inaugural All-Star match in 2009 presented yet another format. After the season ended, a team voted on by fans, media, coaches, and players hosted Swedish club Umeå IK. The American win featured a brace from Christine Sinclair. The 2010 All-Star match moved back to the middle of the season. With the same voting format as the previous year, top-voted players Wambach and ultimate winner Marta chose their teammates in the style of a pickup match.

The WPS did not hold an All-Star match in 2011, claiming most likely players would be away on National Team duty at the Women’s World Cup. And of course, the WPS would ultimately fold before the 2012 season.

With the lack of transparency that characterizes the NWSL, it is unlikely we will ever know if discussions of such an endeavor have taken place. However, one can hope that the league recognizes the benefits an All-Star match could bring.

The NWSL has struggled to create stars beyond National Team players, which is a problem given the amount of time those players are often away. If a fan is hard pressed to name a Houston Dash player other than Carli Lloyd, that fan is not likely to attend a match when Lloyd is called up for National Team duty. With the exception of perhaps the now-departed Ella Masar, the casual soccer fan simply does not know the Kim Littles, Kealia Ohais, and Sarah Hagens of the league.

An All-Star Match brings those players to light. With a lineup that could include Lauren Barnes and Arin Gilliland on the back line, Christine Nairn and Allie Long in the midfield, and Sofia Huerta and Beverly Yanez up top, anyone would be hard-pressed to deny the talent. The NWSL is often touted as a league with some of the best parity in the world, and nothing would demonstrate that level of play more than a field of the best twenty-two players.

Another advantage of bringing these top players together would be to create a prime scouting opportunity for Jill Ellis’ National Team. What better chance to see who deserves a call-up than seeing the best players from across the league play each other all in one game? Players like Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, and Stephanie McCaffrey all earned first or repeat National Team looks based on their NWSL performance.

Finally, an All-Star match brings attention, and as an endeavor that is still fairly new, this league needs all the attention it can get. A televised, marketed game (no small feat in the world of women’s soccer) can create new fans as well as showing confidence in the league. A strong, confident league will stem the flow of young talent currently lost to early retirements and the allure of European leagues. It will also attract top international talent like Amandine Henry, further increasing the fan base.

Fresh off a World Cup win with the possibility of Rio gold on the horizon, professional women’s soccer has a chance to propel this momentum into something that will last. An All-Star match can only help, and after two failed leagues, the NWSL needs all the help it can get. But hey, the third time is the charm, right?