The World Cup drains NWSL teams’ talent. Here’s how one side cope | NWSL

Many of the best footballers in the world have been with their national teams at the Women’s World Cup for well over a month and yet, during that time, it’s been business as usual in the National Women’s Soccer League, the highest level of professional women’s soccer in the US and, arguably, the world. (More on that admittedly contentious claim in a moment.)

The NWSL’s regular season runs from March to October and, with no break incorporated into clubs’ schedules to accommodate for this summer’s World Cup, many of the 12 teams have been forced to compete with depleted rosters. Such hurdles make the recent success of the North Carolina Courage all the more impressive.

Six Courage players, representing four nations, have been away at the World Cup, including captain Denise O’Sullivan (Republic of Ireland) and leading goalscorer Kerolin (Brazil). Consequently, the team haven’t played a match at full strength since June. Not that it’s made much of a difference: the Courage were in second place when the World Cup players left the team and, despite being one of the teams most affected by the absences, have since gone top of the table. If that weren’t enough, they also won their group in the opening stage of the midseason Challenge Cup, clinching a spot in next month’s semi-finals by winning two of their three matches over the last month.

When it comes to facilitating players’ participation in international tournaments, sport’s governing bodies tend to implement one of three strategies. The first approach, and easiest logistically, is to simply schedule the international tournament during domestic competitions’ offseasons. It is through this method that NBA stars, MLB players and European footballers, among other athletes, are able to participate in Olympics, European Championships, World Baseball Classics and World Cups.

Another option is to simply pause domestic competition during the otherwise conflicting international tournament. This is how the Premier League accommodated last year’s winter World Cup in Qatar and, starting next season, how the Rugby Premiership will work around the Six Nations Championship. Finally, domestic leagues can simply refuse to allow their players to compete internationally, the NHL’s favored strategy for the last couple of cycles.

European soccer leagues, including women’s leagues, benefit from the first approach. They compete from autumn to spring and, as such, World Cups (nearly always) fall during their offseasons. Not so for the NWSL, nor for its male equivalent, Major League Soccer. The American preference for summer soccer means that, when summertime international tournaments come around, both the NWSL and MLS are already in full swing. The difference between the situations facing the NWSL and MLS, however, is that the NWSL can legitimately claim to represent its sport’s premier club competition, something the MLS cannot seriously assert.

North Carolina midfielder Frankie Tagliaferri, right, is among the players to have stepped up while the Courage have played on despite six players absent for World Cup duties.
North Carolina midfielder Frankie Tagliaferri, right, is among the players to have stepped up while the Courage have played on despite six players absent for World Cup duties. Photograph: Rob Kinnan/USA Today Sports

As in the men’s game, there’s considerable debate about which country’s women’s league plays the highest level of soccer. Despite the presence of multiple, high-quality rivals (including Spain’s Primera Iberdola, Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and France’s Division 1 Féminine), for many fans the debate often comes down to the NWSL and England’s Women’s Super League. A definitive answer does not exist, of course, but consider the arguments for the NWSL.

If one follows the money, the NWSL comes out on top. Of the 15 highest-earning footballers at this year’s Women’s World Cup, two-thirds play in the NWSL. (The English and French leagues each have two players on the list.) Even if one were to prioritize gameday attendance instead, the NWSL would also rank first, although less overwhelmingly. A pair of Barcelona matches in the 2022 Women’s Champions League drew more than 90,000 fans each, yet average turnout to continental Europe’s top domestic leagues is fewer than 1,000 fans per game. England’s WSL teams fair better than their continental counterparts, attracting about 6,000 fans to each match. In fact, Arsenal’s women’s team hosted a remarkable 17,000 attendees per match last season, significantly more than Bournemouth drew to their matches in the Premier League. The NWSL, however, is averaging 8,700 fans per game so far this season and, last year, Los Angeles’ Angel City FC averaged 19,000.

Even if one were to ignore off-field indicators like cash and crowds, however, to focus on on-field qualities, the case for the NWSL’s primacy is compelling. Until Fifa realizes its claimed goal of establishing a Women’s World Club Cup, international competition will have to serve as an imperfect (but still telling) correlative metric. Despite crashing out of the tournament on penalties to Sweden last week, the US women’s national team arrived at this year’s World Cup as the world’s top-ranked team and the two-time reigning champions. As such, it’s worth noting that 22 of the 23 players on the US national team play in the NWSL.

Whether or not one believes the NWSL to be the premier domestic competition in women’s soccer, what can be said with certainty is that it is at least one of the several, real candidates for the title. As such, the teams competing in NWSL while many of their players are abroad on international duty are doing something teams in no other league have to do – not the NBA, the MLB, La Liga, the Premier League, or any of the European, autumn-to-spring women’s football leagues.

All of which is to say the North Carolina Courage’s recent success is a remarkable achievement not just in the NWSL, but in the broader scope of world sport. Moreover, the club have a history of succeeding in similar circumstances. The Courage last won the NWSL championship in 2019, a season which also overlapped with a Women’s World Cup. The team has experienced significant turnover since then, both in players and coaching (former Courage coach Paul Riley was one of four NWSL coaches banned for life in the wake of a 2021 sexual abuse scandal). Current coach Sean Nahas, however, was an assistant coach on that championship-winning team in 2019 and has integrated that summer’s lessons into this season’s strategy.

“Back in 2019, we did it differently,” Nahas recalls. “We lost, arguably, the best players in the world in their positions in that year. … When they left, [that’s] when we signed [replacement] players. Those players weren’t ready, they weren’t fit. It was just a disaster.” This year, the Courage began engaging with potential replacement players before the season even began.

North Carolina manager Sean Nahas, center, has kept the Courage on course despite the club’s half-dozen World Cup absences.
North Carolina manager Sean Nahas, center, has kept the Courage on course despite the club’s half-dozen World Cup absences. Photograph: RTS/Shutterstock

“A lot of [the replacement players] have been here since day one,” says Courage forward Tyler Lussi, the team’s second-leading goal-scorer and one of the players still playing NWSL soccer during the World Cup. “They’ve learned [the team’s] culture and mindset. They’ve been in every single meeting. … To have that is really special and definitely helps our team.” Both Nahas and Lussi repeatedly mention notions of team unity, even when six of the team’s best players are on the other side of the world.

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“The one thing I told the group before the World Cup players left,” Nahas says, “was, ‘These six or seven players are leaving, but they aren’t the reason why we’re in first place. … These players are going to the World Cup because of what the other 19 players do for them in training every single day.’”

“When the World Cup players left, our level didn’t ever drop,” Lussi adds. “A lot of players have stepped up. You can see that in our 6-0 win [in a NWSL Challenge Cup match against the Washington Spirit on 22 July]. Six different individuals scored [in that game]. … That’s where you can see the culture of this team.

“Sean, after the game, said ‘We really became a family that game.’”

Lussi says that family spirit is evident in the team’s group chat, with those at the World Cup sending congratulatory messages to the Courage back in North Carolina, and vice versa. “We’re always celebrating them, and they’re celebrating us,” she says. “It’s a great feeling.”

With Courage players representing four different countries at the World Cup, both Nahas and Lussi (both American) are humorously cagey about their loyalties.

“I have four different countries I have to cheer for. If they play each other, you won’t hear from me. … I’ll just text them privately and say ‘good luck,’” Nahas laughs. He is less evasive, however, about his plans for the rest of the season, after the Courage’s World Cup contingent return. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say, ‘We’re not done yet,’” he says.

The NWSL’s status within world football may be up for a debate, but the data informing Nahas’s forecast of the Courage’s potential are not. Given how well the Courage have played without their best players this season, it would seem rash to underestimate the Courage’s chances this season once they’re back at full strength.