Women's pro league embarks on historic fourth season


PORTLAND, ORE. >> The National Women's Soccer League is going where no other previous U.S. women's pro soccer league has gone: A fourth season.

The NWSL enters its pivotal season starting Saturday, still riding the boost that the sport was given by the U.S. national team's World Cup victory last summer.

The United States will go for its fourth straight Olympic gold medal this summer in Brazil, which should also help keep the spotlight on the NWSL — which features the national team's players.

"The league's still in the growing stage," said defender Meghan Klingenberg, a newcomer to the Portland Thorns this season. "But I have no doubt it can become one of the best leagues in the world.

"If we get a few more international players, if we get a bit more money and we get players staying around longer than one or two years out of college, so, being able to pay them a bit better — I think there is so much potential for this league, and I'm personally excited to play because every game is a chance for me and my teammates to get better. And that helps everyone."

Klingenberg was part of an offseason trade that sent national team forward Alex Morgan from Portland to the expansion Orlando Pride. Klingenberg played the past two seasons with the Houston Dash.

The league's four-year mark also brings some questions. The U.S. national team players, who are paid by U.S. Soccer and not the league, are in a contract dispute with the federation and a group of them have filed a federal complaint alleging wage discrimination.

In a conference call with reporters previewing the season, national team and FC Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn said the players were not linking the NWSL to the labor issues.

"We're committed to playing in the league," she said.

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush added that the league is not going to get caught up in something it has no control over.

Some other things to consider when the NWSL gets under way Saturday:

OPENING WEEKEND: All 10 teams are in play this weekend. On Saturday the Washington Spirit play the Boston Breakers, The Western New York Flash host Kansas City and the Houston Dash visit the Chicago Red Stars. On Sunday, the Seattle Reign visit Sky Blue FC in New Jersey and the Orlando Pride visit the Portland Thorns. The latter game is notable because it will be Morgan's first game in Portland after the offseason trade. Morgan was a founding player for the Thorns. As many as 15,000 fans are expected at Providence Park for the match.

TV DEAL: The league announced a deal this week with FOX Sports to air six games this season. FS1 will air three regular-season games, the semifinals and the championship. It is the second year the league has struck a deal with FOX to air games.

All three of the televised regular-season games come after the Olympics.

Plush said the deal is not exclusive. NWSL games are also all streamed live on YouTube.

ABOUT THE OLYMPICS: The NWSL will take a break for nearly the entire month of August for the Olympic Games. In addition to losing many of the U.S. national team players during the event, the league will miss many Canadian national team players who are also distributed across the league, as well as some international players — the league has players from eight of the 12 countries going to the Rio Games.

Included among the international players who could get call-ups for the Olympics are Australian forward Kyah Simon, who plays for the Boston Breakers, Colombia's Lady Andrade and New Zealand's Abby Erceg, who both play for Western New York.

EXPANSION?: Plush said that in the future he'd like to expand in pairs to maintain league balance. He said there is interest from both Major League Soccer teams and other entities. Some current teams with MLS partners include the Portland Thorns (Portland Timbers), Houston Dash (Houston Dynamo) and FC Kansas City (Sporting KC).

SPONSORSHIPS: While attendance and online viewership rose for the NWSL last season following the World Cup, it did not translate to new major sponsorships for the league, something that will be vital to its success moving forward. "Certainly, we need to show growth with sponsorships," Plush acknowledged.

KLINGENBERG WITH THE FINAL WORD: "I think that the players want to be here, they want to get better and they want to be the best in the world. So when you have those types of players it feeds up into ownership," she said. "So you can see in places like in Portland they want to be the best and they want to create the best players in the best environment. So having types of clubs like this, and Orlando, and getting even more MLS teams involved, it will only help the league get better. There's so much upside to this league."


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