Many Women’s World Cup players have ties to American college, pro teams
By Jayme Fraser | GateHouse Media
July 14, 2019
America dominated the Women’s World Cup tournament this summer in France, and not just by winning the coveted trophy.
Current U.S. league athletes played for 13 of the 24 countries — including Team USA — that competed in the month-long international soccer championship that ended July 7.
About one in every seven Women’s World Cup players hailed from a professional or collegiate team in the United States. The tally doubles when counting those who previously played for American teams, according to a GateHouse analysis of rosters.
The stats highlight the worldwide importance of the Title IX anti-discrimination law and the quality of the National Women’s Soccer League even as other nations invest historic amounts in their own systems.
“The United States has put women’s sports at the forefront when other countries were not doing so,” said Aaran Lines, president and former coach of the Western New York Flash. “It started with Title IX.”
The 1972 federal law prohibits sex discrimination in education and requires schools to provide equal athletic opportunities. The landmark law led American colleges to add women’s teams, which have developed talent for a breadth of professional and national sports.
And because collegiate coaches increasingly recruit worldwide, the federal law also has created more training opportunities for international players. At the World Cup, nearly 80 players from 15 countries other than the United States have ties to collegiate teams here.
“You just look at Mexico and Canada. They’ve had huge success based on their players coming to our country to play in college and develop then go back to their national teams and raise that level for their team,” said UCLA Coach and former American national team player Amanda Cromwell.
All but two people on Canada’s roster played for an American college, but 18-year-old Jayde Riviere has committed to join the University of Michigan this fall. Mexico’s squad did not qualify for the World Cup this cycle, but its 2015 roster shows 16 of 23 players had those ties. Other nations with a significant number include Jamaica (19), New Zealand (10), England (5) and Scotland (4).
Cromwell said the diversity of collegiate athletes has increased as more players prepare for academic eligibility, take entrance exams, and study English.
“Some countries, if you’re a youth national team player, they may frown about them going to the States because they have to pay for their travel back,” Cromwell said. “But for the most part, there is a lot of support. They do see the value of it. You can see the results.”
A quick tally shows that U.S. leagues are far more significant for the women’s game worldwide than for the men’s side. While women from American leagues played for half the countries in their cup, men from U.S. leagues appeared on just a fifth of the teams in the cup last year.
Even the rosters of Team USA underscore the difference.
All 23 players on the women’s roster compete in American leagues compared to only 14 of 23 men. This year’s female squad hailed from eight of nine U.S. clubs: Chicago Red Stars, North Carolina Courage, Washington Spirit, Orlando Pride, Portland Thorns, Seattle’s Reign FC, New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC and Utah Royals.
Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke said the National Women’s Soccer League attracts the best players because it is seen by so many as the world’s most competitive professional environment for the women’s game.
“They see it as a place to come and excel and push themselves and develop,” he said. “While other leagues in other countries have got a rich culture on the men’s side, in particular, I think the U.S. women’s football is the pinnacle.”
Despite Title IX, even the United States has struggled to maintain a professional soccer league for women.
The USL W-League formed in 1995 as the first national league, and the Women’s Premier Soccer League spun off from it in 1998. Those then shifted to second-tier leagues with the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001.
The professional league hoped to build off momentum from the United States’ 1999 World Cup win, but folded at the end of the 2003 season amid financial problems.
A second run at a top club competition was made in 2008 with the formation of the Women’s Professional Soccer League. Management struggles and little investment killed it after three seasons.
The latest iteration — the National Women’s Soccer League — launched in 2013 with financial investments from Canadian, Mexican and American federations. Financial stability varies by team, but the league as a whole has increased its budget and player salaries.
World Cup rosters featured 56 active NWSL players and another 37 former players, according to a GateHouse Media review. With the addition of former players on semi-pro teams or from previous pro leagues, more than 110 World Cup players have competed in the United States beyond the college level.
Of the 24 teams at the tournament, only four rosters were devoid of a tie to an American league: Germany, China, Italy and South Korea.
“The NWSL is a great platform for players developing for their national teams all over the world,” said Seattle Reign FC Coach Vlatko Andonovski, who has worked with two dozen women who played for nine countries at the World Cup. “Playing meaningful games on a weekly basis and working in a professional training environment on a daily basis is what helps them get prepared for big tournaments like that.”
In recent years, other countries have launched women’s leagues and ramped up investments in an attempt to catch up with the dominant American side and cash in on an untapped, growing market.
Despite those global investments, Cromwell said the United States remains a top choice for many players because there are no easy games.
“Top to bottom, our U.S. league is the most competitive,” she said. “In other leagues, there might be two or three competitive teams, but it falls off after that.”
For example, look at the top French league. Three teams routinely beat the other nine by large margins, winning by five goals or more per game. The winner is a foregone conclusion. They only play teams of similar quality once they advance into the European Championship.
But in the NWSL, the score lines are closer and even the defending league champions can’t relax on the job if they want to win. That, coaches said, mean players cannot slack and must play their best every match — the kind of environment sought by many of the world’s elite.
Despite the competitive quality of the NWSL, it is harder to recruit all the world’s best players as American teams did in previous decades. Simply put, teams in Europe now pay more.
Players in the American league get an average salary of $27,054 a year, according to Sporting Intelligence’s global salaries report from 2017. In England, they would make $35,355. In Germany, they would get $43,730. In France, they would earn $49,782.
Pay also is one way to compare how much is invested in women’s versus men’s soccer. The Major League Soccer Players Association reports that the average base salary for non-designated players is $345,867 — almost 13 times more than the NWSL average salary.
It’s worth noting that professional and national team pay is complicated. Players earn money from diverse sources outside of league base salaries that can substantially increase their soccer income. And the NWSL, unlike MLS through the union, does not publicly report figures.
But the overall trends hold true: Women are paid less than men at the club level, and the NWSL facesincreased financial competition from European leagues for top talent.
Denise Schilte-Brown, a former Canadian national player who coaches the University of South Florida Bulls, said women must continue to “push hard” for better opportunities if they want to see the United States and other countries reach equitable treatment and play.
And soccer fans can make a difference, she said, convincing league leaders that the players are worth the investment.
“If they want their daughters to have a future in professional sports,” she said, “they have to buy season tickets to the local games,” she said.