In a move that would have considerable implications on the women’s professional soccer landscape, the USL is reportedly exploring a new Division I circuit that would compete directly with the NWSL.
There has not been a formal announcement of a women’s league from USL, but there are signs that one could be in the works. Unlike the USL’s men’s leagues—which top out at Division II USL Championship—the new women’s league would be geared toward obtaining a Division I sanction, putting it in direct competition with the NWSL.
Under what is being reported by SI.com, the league could launch as soon as 2021, with several existing USL ownership groups interested in establishing teams in the proposed circuit. More from SI.com:
Several ownership groups of USL men’s teams—which play in the second and third divisions on the men’s side—have already confirmed their interest in having a team in the proposed D1 women’s league, one source told SI.com. They are under the belief, the source said, that U.S. Soccer would allocate U.S. women’s national team players to their Division 1 league as it currently does with the NWSL.
A U.S. Soccer spokesperson confirmed that it would be possible for the federation to sanction two Division 1 women’s pro leagues.
A USL spokesperson, Ryan Madden, said he had no comment on whether the USL was launching a first-division women’s league. But he added: “We’re absolutely supporters of the women’s game. And like most soccer fans across the country, we want to see more women being given more opportunities to play the game at whatever level suits them.”
Rumors of a new USL-backed women’s league come at a period of growth for the NWSL, which had a successful 2019 that was fueled in part by the success of the U.S. women’s national team in the World Cup. The league is trying to use that momentum to address several areas of need, including improved facilities and stronger corporate partnerships.
There has also been movement on the expansion front, with Louisville—to be backed by owners of USL Championship’s Louisville City FC—confirmed for a 2021 launch, and rumors linking Atlanta, Austin, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Sacramento as potential landing spots for new clubs. The NWSL, for its part, seemed surprised by the rumors surrounding a USL-backed women’s league, but is still focusing on future growth, per SI.com:
“It’s news to me,” NWSL president Amanda Duffy told SI.com when asked about the USL’s interest in starting a rival league. “From our standpoint, I can say that given the season that we’re coming out of right now, with record-setting attendances and important partnerships that have come into the picture, important expansion conversations and the outlook for the coming years and our player-compensation announcement recently, there are a lot of exciting things that have happened and that we’re working on in the NWSL.”
“We’ll remain committed in that, and our evolving relationship with U.S. Soccer is very important to the NWSL.”
Going forward, one of the biggest questions in this scenario will be if there is room for two women’s Division I leagues in the United States and how the potential USL circuit would establish its place in the market. Despite some early growing pains—and a long history of short-lived women’s leagues that predated it—the NWSL now seems to be a solidly on a path toward future growth, and it remains to be seen if it will have competition in the relatively near future.
Image of NWSL action courtesy Chicago Red Stars.