By JACK BELL
Major League Soccer went dark last year for two weeks during the group stage of the World Cup even though a limited number of players in the league, the majority of whom were playing for the United States, left for the tournament in Brazil.
This year, teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) face the same challenge, though on a much larger scale. That is because the premier women’s league in North America is supported by the federations of the United States, Canada and Mexico – all of which will be playing in the 2015 Women’s World Cup throughout Canada beginning on June 6. The NWSL, like MLS last season, will take a break, this one of 12 days, during the tournament, which this year has been expanded to 24 national teams.
“It’s an extreme challenge,” said Brian Ching, the managing director of the Houston Dash. “We have 10 new players this season, most of whom are international players, and they won’t be around for preseason. We figure that during the tournament eight to 10 of our players will be gone between six and 10 games.”
According to the league, the maximum number of players that could be missing during the month-long tournament is 76 (be aware that the NWSL includes internationals from countries like Australia, England and others in the World Cup). Right now, it is obviously impossible to know exactly how many until the national teams involved announce their 30-player preliminary rosters and 23-player final rosters in the weeks immediately before the World Cup.
Among the three federations with a financial and player stake in the NWSL, there are a total of 42 allocated national team players from Canada (13), Mexico (4) and U.S. (25) who are expected to play in the league this year. With a roster limit of 23 for the World Cup, two American players in the NWSL will not make the final roster.
Jim Gabarra, the coach of Sky Blue FC, said his club, cognizant of this being a World Cup year, “built the team to have a minimal impact from the World Cup” this year. He said the team’s priority was to re-sign the club’s Danish striker, Nadia Nadim, who led the club with seven goals in only five games last year. Nadim has played more than 50 times for Denmark’s national team, which failed to qualify for Canada.
Gabarra and Sky Blue will also be without the services of the team’s Australian national team players, a group that includes wing Sam Kerr (who has scored 16 goals in two years in the league) and defender Caitlin Foord. Sky Blue will also be missing the veteran defender Christie Rampone of the United States.
“Australia has a considerable preparation program, three camps that are three weeks long,” Gabarra said. “There’s no sense to have them fly here and back. I was going to try to get them out of camp, but wouldn’t feel comfortable asking them to give up the last camp before the tournament.”
All three federations are planning extended training camps and events before the start of the World Cup, but have agreed to release their players to participate from the start of the 2015 season, where and when it makes sense in terms of travel. National team players will begin the season with their squads, but will participate in the first three to four NWSL league games.
The league expects national team players to miss seven or eight games of the 20-game schedule. Other internationals will depend on call-ups and FIFA dates.
The NWSL preseason is scheduled to begin on March 9; rosters must be finalized on April 6. Until then, concrete numbers are merely estimates.
On Jan. 26, US Soccer announced an extensive World Cup preparation schedule for the national team that includes 10 matches across the United States in April and May, and will culminate with a match against South Korea at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, on Sunday afternoon, May 30. That is in addition to six games in Europe in February and March, which includes participation in the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
“What’s different now is that US Soccer has a vested interest in the league and they are arguing our case for the clubs and the league,” Gabarra said, referring to a previous system in which the players’ club commitments in earlier leagues were secondary. “In the past they were their federations’ players, and you were borrowing them when you could. Now they are being compensated to play in the league and it’s a step in right direction.”