How England's FAWSL could become the best women's soccer league in the world

It was one blockbuster announcement followed by another. Samantha Mewis and Rose Lavelle, two young stars of the World Cup-winning U.S. national team, opted to leave the National Women’s Soccer League and ply their trade at Manchester City.

For NWSL fans, it may have come out of the blue. For Gavin Makel, Man City’s head of women’s football, it was an opportunity seized after years of hoping.

“Rose is a player that we’ve known about for a long time — before she became a regular for the U.S. national team,” he told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “I've always felt that she was someone that, if there was an opportunity to bring her here, she would fit seamlessly into how we want to play.”

“When COVID hit, we saw that there was an opportunity, potentially,” he said, noting it was the same with Mewis. “Given the uncertainty that was going on in the NWSL, it was a matter of reaching out and seeing if it was something of interest.”

It was indeed of interest — not just for Lavelle and Mewis, but other USWNT stars are also making their way to England in what looks like a COVID-induced exodus of stars from the NWSL. It remains to be seen whether this is a unique scenario created by the pandemic, or the pandemic is accelerating a trend that was starting to happen anyway.

What is clear is that the NWSL, which has enjoyed a monopoly of the top American stars to become the most competitive league in the world, may not always be able to take USWNT stars for granted. Now, the FAWSL (as the top-flight Women’s Super League in England is known) is as interesting as ever for global soccer fans.

As football-mad England embraces the women’s game more, the FAWSL can utilize its built-in advantages to become the top destination in women’s soccer. The question is if, and how soon, it’ll get there.

USWNT star Sam Mewis (left) and Manchester City will go toe-to-toe with Sophie Ingle and Chelsea in the FAWSL this season as the league continues to grow. (Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
USWNT star Sam Mewis (left) and Manchester City will go toe-to-toe with Sophie Ingle and Chelsea in the FAWSL this season as the league continues to grow. (Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

The growing women’s game in the UK

For Americans who will tune into the opening weekend of the new FAWSL season Saturday, it’ll be a different kind of soccer than they are used to watching in the NWSL. Less transitional, less physical, more technical and more tactical.

For players like Mewis and Lavelle, that’s part of the appeal. When Americans leave the U.S. for Europe, it’s typically touted as a way for them to evolve as all-around players — and it tends to work. From Alex Morgan to Crystal Dunn, USWNT players often return from stints abroad as more dynamic, versatile versions of themselves.

In the absence of a Women’s Club World Cup hosted by FIFA, it’s hard to declare a best league in the world. But unlike the French and German leagues, which have powerhouse teams that roll through the rest of the competition and into the Champions League, the FAWSL is similar to the NWSL in how closely matched teams are, with the help of an NWSL-like salary cap system.

“I do think we have probably the most competitive league in Europe and this season will be the most competitive that I've been involved in,” said Makel, who has been in his role at Man City since 2013. “That breeds excitement and interest amongst broadcasters and fans. You want to see the season go to the final game, and that only drives each club to push the boundaries.

“It’d be interesting to play a transatlantic tournament between the FAWSL and the NWSL to see where we’d both land.”

There’s no rush at the moment to figure out which league is better, of course. But NWSL team owners often like to tout the stateside league as having the best players in the world, a unique selling point the NWSL will want to hold onto.

In the wake of NWSL MVP Samantha Kerr leaving the Chicago Red Stars for Chelsea, the NWSL set new spending provisions last year to retain the players who might be lured abroad. Teams can accumulate as much as $300,000 each season to spend on top-tier players, which is within the range for a top women’s player.

It’s an ambitious move from the NWSL, which has increasingly broken away from the cautious, conservative tack the league took when it was founded in 2013.

But looming in the background, there’s one worry that American fans and pundits in women’s soccer have been repeating for years: Europe is going to catch up.

In the club game, that concern centers on the super-rich clubs in the English Premier League. Once they decide women’s football is worth spending money on, the FAWSL will zoom past the NWSL. That is probably not going to happen in the immediate future but the FAWSL is on an upward trajectory that will generate only more interest from the deep-pocketed, football-obsessed backers of men’s soccer.

Last year, the FAWSL signed on Barclays as a presenting sponsor for more than $13 million, a sum declared “the biggest-ever investment in UK women's sport by a brand.” And although the FAWSL’s average attendance last year was still roughly 1/7 of the NWSL on average, it had been on the sharp incline ever since the Women’s World Cup in France, jumping nearly 300 percent.

For clubs like Manchester City, there is a clear path to women’s football becoming a profitable, key part of their business.

“Do I see it being profitable? 100 percent,” Makel said. “How quickly that will happen? I’m not entirely sure. It could be five years, could be 10, could be 15. I actually think now is the time, more than ever, to continue to invest and invest more because it’s on such an upward trajectory. Why would you stop investing until you reach as high as you can?”

Changing attitudes toward women’s soccer

If there’s anything holding the FAWSL back, it’s not really money. It’s attitudes — the attitudes that dictate whether women’s soccer is worth anyone’s time, energy and, yes, pounds sterling.

In England, where modern soccer was invented, the sport exists within the entrenched idea that it’s for men. Soccer in the United States hasn’t quite had to contend with that — after all, the first time soccer truly became mainstream among Americans was during the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Things are changing in the UK, though.

Just two weeks ago, Leicester City bought back the rights to its affiliated women’s team and finally made it a fully professional team. The club promised the women’s team would be only part of a larger investment in developing female soccer players.

Manchester United was criticized for years for not having a women’s team, despite the vast resources availed to its men’s team, and it launched a team in 2018. Now, sources say USWNT stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press are in the process of transferring there this season.

Manchester City, which joined the FAWSL in 2014, has started positioning its women’s and men’s team as something of equals. Plastered at Etihad Stadium are photos of both teams, and the club promotes both teams from single social media channels rather than siloing the women.

That prominent placement and shared spotlight is a page taken from the playbook of the Portland Timbers and its NWSL club the Thorns, which has become easily the best-supported women’s club in the world.

“We’ve broken though a bit of that barrier of the wrongful perception of the women’s game,” Makel said. “We’re making more noise about the performance and the product on the pitch as a technical, high value elite sport. We’ve still got a long way to go but we’re getting there.”

There was concern that COVID-19 might undo all the progress the FAWSL has made, but Kelly Simmons, the director of the women’s professional game for the English federation, says clubs have remained committed. That is a promising sign.

“Months ago there was a lot of doom and gloom written about clubs cutting women's football to the point where you'd wonder, reading this stuff, if there'd be a season at all,” she told reporters this week, “but we haven't seen that. By and large, clubs are strengthening in the transfer market. Clubs continue to invest in and commit to the women's game.”

Clubs are investing at different levels, and those investments are growing slowly. But it is the clearest evidence that attitudes are changing and money will follow.

For now, with a new season kicking off, the FAWSL needs to prove it has a high-quality product worth watching. After all, that’s ultimately why people will continue to watch and care about the league. With a slate of global stars this season, including some American World Cup winners, the FAWSL can do exactly that.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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