The Changing Face of the NWSL

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It has been an offseason of change for the NWSL. In November, it was announced that FC Kansas City—the two-time NWSL champions—were folding. In their place, the Real Salt Lake organization would be bringing the Utah Royals into league. For legal reasons, this was technically one club folding and another expanding, but since FCKC’s roster was transferred over, in practical terms it was a relocation. This week, shortly after the draft and mere weeks before the start of the preseason, it was announced that the Boston Breakers would also be folding.

The Boston Breakers are one of the oldest women’s soccer teams in the country. They have participated in every season of the top professional leagues, starting with the WUSA from 2001-2003. They were then re-established with the start of the WPS in 2007 and have been playing ever since (dropping down to the WPSL Elite level for the gap year between WPS and NWSL). Some of the most famous people to ever play the game on U.S soil came through Boston, including U.S national team stars such as Meghan Klingenberg, Sydney Leroux, and most recently, Rose Lavelle. Just last week, they participated in the NWSL draft, welcoming four new players to their club.

It’s hard to believe that they will not be there on opening day in 2018—even harder for the dedicated fans, staff, and players.

This sort of change in the NWSL is not new. Three teams that have joined the league since 2014—the Houston Dash, the Orlando Pride, and the Utah Royals—have been associated with MLS, while the North Carolina Courage (inheritors of the Western New York Flash) are associated with North Carolina FC, a USL side that has applied to join MLS. These teams have money behind them, and even if they have a bad season, they have the security of a diverse organization to keep them afloat. That’s something Boston didn’t have, and it seems to have been a major factor in them shutting their doors.

As we enter the 6th season of the NWSL, many would argue that this kind of change is necessary. While unsettling at times, the league needs investments of this sort. Partnership with men’s sides has proven to work from multiple angles—marketing, stadium sharing, increased awareness. In that context, an independent team like Boston, which struggled with operation costs and played at a venue that only held 2,500, can seem like a poor fit for the NWSL vision.

But there are problems with this too. No one would deny that the league needs money. Still, for all the focus on growth, it seems we often forget about our roots—about the role that clubs like Boston and Kansas City have played in the history of women’s soccer and the history of the NWSL. And while history isn’t going to pay player’s salaries or pay for a better venue, we lose something when we forget its importance. We lose something when we fail to acknowledge the people who paved the way for us to be here today.

The league is expected to balance out to 10 teams again next year. Reports are saying that there will likely be a partnership between FC Barcelona and LAFC that will result in a new NWSL franchise in Los Angeles. That is an exciting prospect—but we should not simply push aside the old for the new. Maybe there wasn’t a place for Boston in the new order of the NWSL—but there would be no new order if it wasn’t for Boston.

One of the greatest parts of the NWSL is the community that surrounds it. For those of you who aren’t fans of the Boston Breakers, be sensitive. Don’t forget the people who laid the ground for you to be here today. Don’t belittle the sadness of those fans, players, and staff who now have to start anew. And if you are a Boston Breakers fan—let me be one to extend my sincerest apologies that this is something you have to go through. It is never easy to lose the things you love.