The Inexact Science of NWSL Player Allocation


I drew the short straw with writing about the player allocation system in the NWSL and if it works in general. I gave it some thought. Had an adult beverage. Gave it some more thought. Had another adult beverage. Watched the two Planet of the Apes movie reboots to distract myself (they’re pretty decent, for those curious). Then I gave it some more thought.

Does the allocation system work?

We are in the fifth season of the NWSL, advancing further than the last two women’s professional leagues. Growing pains are still there because the league is still in its infancy. We know this. That said, overall the allocation system works. The NWSL was founded with the idea and practice that each of the eight founding teams would have the best soccer players that the US, Canada, and Mexico has to offer. RJ Allen’s piece is a nice capsule of the allocated players since year one, with what’s worked and what hasn’t. If you’ve followed the NWSL since day one, you know that there’s no absolute of a “right or wrong” about the allocation system. What I mean is if you want to win in the NWSL, you don’t need to have a super team of allocation players. Nor are you exactly digging your own grave if you don’t have any. The Portland Thorns have always had at least four allocated players and that’s gotten them one NWSL Championship and one NWSL Shield. At the same time, it has affected the Thorns when all those allocated players had to report to their respective national teams and roster depth was tested. The Seattle Reign FC have never really been focused on getting as many allocated players possible. Instead, Laura Harvey built her super teams through world-class internationals and the development of a core group of players she identified from the inaugural season. The Chicago Red Stars do have their US internationals but Rory Dames has a deep team through college draft picks working out, whether they are starting eleven caliber or impact subs.

The bottom line is that no NWSL roster is constructed with the thought process of, “Give us all the federation players, because that’s all we know.” Yes, any team would love to have the services of a Christine Sinclair, Megan Rapinoe, or Becky Sauerbrunn, but any coach worth their salt builds their team with a mix of allocated players, international players, and development of college drafted players. The first two years of the NWSL were confusing with the revolving door of changes as to who was an allocated player and where were they allocated to, especially when in the early days it was all about trying to get as many players to their preferred choice as much as possible.

Should there be a system of compensation for teams who are not represented fairly among the allocations and what should that compensation be?

There are a couple of angles to look at to answer that question. What is fair representation? If a team only chooses to have one or two federation allocated players and they are content with that setup, then all’s well that ends well. It’s a club’s prerogative to make their environment as attractive as possible for a player to want to play there – bright-eyed, ready-to-turn-pro college player or prolific international. For example let’s look at this season’s allocations between the Portland Thorns, Seattle Reign FC, and Sky Blue FC.

As we’ve reached the halfway mark of the season, Seattle and Sky Blue look to be playoff contenders and Portland are just on the outside looking in. Ask any Seattle or Sky Blue fan and I bet they’re happy with the current state of their teams, more or less independent of their teams just having two Ffederation players versus Portland’s six.

The other way of addressing the question of if there should be a compensation system in place is, what if an allocated player can’t play for their NWSL team? The question then becomes why can’t they? The obvious answers to that why are injury or a life event like pregnancy. Should there be a compensation system should one of those situations happen? I don’t think so. The player allocation system is unique in that only the top-flight soccer leagues in the United States are the only sports leagues to have such intricate systems. I don’t think the system necessitates needing a safety net if an allocated player gets injured or has to stop playing because of a life event. Injuries and life events happen in all sports and teams usually have the resources (roster depth) to address those problems should they arise. That said, I can think of one instance compensation related to allocated players could make sense – it’s if said player refuses to play for the team they were allocated to.

Megan Rapinoe was initially not happy with being allocated to Seattle – Portland was her first choice – and sought a trade, but in the end, it all worked out well for her and Seattle. However, it’s not completely out there to think of a scenario in which a federation allocated player would refused to play for a NWSL club and would go as far as sitting out a season. What’s a club and the league to do at that point? Consider a hypothetical scenario in which a US player was allocated to a team that they did not want to go to. It wasn’t their first, second, third or even fifth choice. Usually, before it becomes public that the player did not want to play for that team, a trade happens before they even set foot on that team’s home pitch. Likely they’d be traded to one of the NWSL teams they preferred to play for if there are enough pieces involved that both sides are happy. Another player, draft picks, allocation ranking places are usually said pieces. Or the player opts to play their club soccer abroad if they can and their “NWSL rights” stay with that team until a solution (player changes mind and reports to the team or the aforementioned trade happens) is reached. While I don’t think it’s happened where a federation allocated player simply sat out a NWSL season because they didn’t want to play for a specific team, I don’t think one can rule out it ever happening.

So what’s a team to do if the most extreme scenario happens – an allocated player refuses to show up for work, didn’t sign up to play abroad and would rather sit at home than play for (insert NWSL team here)? Honestly, I think the federation at that point would force a trade, using their best judgment (I hear you people laughing if it were USSF handling this – stay with me) to get the most equal trade for both sides to happen. If for some reason a forced trade can’t happen, THEN under this extreme scenario do I think a compensation system could work. And of course, the simplest form of compensation would be the almighty dollar.

Since federation allocated players have their salaries subsidized by said federation, if that player is that extreme-case scenario where they don’t want to play for their designated NWSL team and would rather sit out the season, then my proposal would be to give whatever salary that player would have commanded to the NWSL club as a “good for only this season” addition to their salary cap. Maybe put in a provision that the money can only be used to give a salary bonus to the rest of the players under contract with that NWSL club and aren’t federation allocated players. Maybe reward that midfielder that made it to the NWSL Best XI last season. Basically reward those that are showing up to play for that NWSL club, that city and not just look at that nice pile of money and think, “Alright, gonna go get me a mercenary for the season!” Again, this should only be for the extreme scenario in which an allocated player basically says, “Nope, not going to show up for work.” The player may have valid reasons for calling their shot like this, but you have to consider the NWSL coach that likely expected to use the player’s skills for their game plan and yes – the good coaches will find a way to adjust and plan accordingly, but as we know in sports, that extreme scenario could be when you least expected it.

Does this entire scenario sound preposterous? For the most part yes, especially since we the public wouldn’t know about it unless someone did some major silence-breaking. It would become a provocative story if Player X went public with their proclamations of, “I refuse to play for this team.” Even that though going public would feel incredibly last resort. Then again, this is WoSo where there is a particular word reserved for something incredible like the league and/or federation being unable to come to a resolution and more or less allowing it become ugly.

In the present, the allocation system works for the NWSL. Is it going to be around forever? I would say for the most part yes. As long as US Soccer remains the main investor of the league, then we know their interest lies in wanting to keep the national team player pool deep as college players turn pro, get drafted into the league and develop into national team-caliber talent. Yes the US has the biggest stake in investment, but Canada surely is enjoying the development of goalkeepers Sabrina D’Angelo and Kailen Sheridan the more they play in the NWSL.

Time will tell if Mexico resurrects participation in the allocation process, but I’d imagine there’s interest down the line as the league looks into expansion. It’s hard to foresee now if any influx of money from expansion and/or increased sponsorship brings about a conversation about NWSL clubs having enough money that they can cover player salaries without any subsidizing from federations. Though as the saying goes, never say never.

In an ideal WoSo world, yes, there’s enough sustainable money coming in that the budget-tight early days of the NWSL are barely a distant memory, but in the now and immediate future, player allocation makes sense.

Image courtesy of Kelley Piper
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