It might seem like an exodus, and it sort of is. If reports are true, then Christen Press and Tobin Heath will become the third and fourth members of the World Cup-winning US Women’s squad to head for England’s WSL this season.
The two are reportedly joining Manchester United, across town from Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis, who have joined Manchester City in the past couple weeks. The WSL season started this weekend, and Mewis started for City in their opening 2-0 win against Aston Villa.
They may not be the last, either. The main reason is clear. With the Olympics moved to next summer, and the rest of the NWSL’s season only figured out recently and only partially and something of a hodge-podge, players are looking for opportunities to keep playing and stay sharp ahead of next summer’s competition. As Olympic squads are limited to only 18 players, there is serious competition for spots for just about everyone.
Add to that that it’s unclear whether the national team is going to even be able to play any friendlies between now and Tokyo, or when that would be, and players are even more desperate to rack up minutes.
“No one wants to come here, and we’re not probably going to be allowed to go anywhere else,” USWNT star Megan Rapinoe told the Laughter Permitted with Julie Foudy podcast. The team might be picked based solely on club seasons, and it’s not a sure thing that the NWSL’s 2021 season will start as normal (certainly not at this rate).
But it might not be that cut and dry. The WSL is clearly the rising power in the women’s game, striking new TV deals left and right, including here in the US with NBC. While the WSL does have a salary cap like the NWSL — are not allowed to spend more than 40% of their total turnover on salaries — there is a loophole that lets parent companies take on the wage bill to whatever their hearts’ content. Which is why clubs like Man City, United, Arsenal, and Chelsea are rising to the top of the table - their clubs are taking on the role of “parent company.” This is how Chelsea was able to lure Sam Kerr, perhaps the world’s best striker, away from the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars with a salary reportedly around $400K a year after the 2019 NWSL season, more than she could have gotten in the States. Chelsea broke the transfer record in the women’s game this past summer with the $400K purchase of Denmark’s Pernille Harder. Arsenal have brought in three Australian internationals for this season, along with the Yankee contingent in Manchester now. The money has flowed like never before in the WSL.
It won’t be a permanent exodus, at least not yet. Both Mewis and Lavelle are on loan, with plans to return to their NWSL sides after the WSL season, assuming there is one. If there is, they will still miss the first couple months of it, and if they’re on the Olympic team, it’ll probably be after that.
The pandemic has allowed the players to leave without forfeiting their salaries from here in the states, either. As all four are US stalwarts, their salary is paid by US Soccer. Normally, playing abroad would see those players have to forego that. But because NWSL hasn’t had an official season, these players are still getting their US Soccer salary, plus whatever their new English clubs are paying them (at least equal and probably more than they would have gotten in the NWSL).
Still, long-term, it will be more financially beneficial for US stars to remain in the NWSL, whenever NWSL can run a normal season again. That is until European clubs can offer them salaries equal or exceeding the ones they get from US Soccer. That day is coming and quickly.
But as clubs like the Manchesters and the London-based ones get more involved, the chance that salaries will rise much quicker than the NWSL can manage is there. Manchester United only started their women’s team in 2018, and now they’re bringing in two genuine world-class stars. Real Madrid only started their women’s team officially last year. But having these names will only push the European game further.
Given the way the league is scheduled and the Olympics, all four of these players aren’t likely to return to the NWSL before next August. But if they are enchanted by the greater competition and possibly higher salaries, would they stay? How many would make the jump after them? What would the NWSL do if it lost a raft of US stars? Even non-national team players are leaving en masse at the moment to find regular games and time. Something to keep an eye on.