USWNT stars are fleeing the United States for Europe, and COVID-19 isn't the only reason

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Samantha Mewis (3) and Rose Lavelle are both joining Manchester City, and other USWNT stars are looking to play in Europe now too. Will it start a bigger trend? (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Samantha Mewis (3) and Rose Lavelle are joining Manchester City, and other USWNT stars are looking to play in Europe now too. Will it start a bigger trend? (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

First it was midfielder Samantha Mewis to Manchester City. Then midfielder Rose Lavelle, also to Man City. Then defender Emily Sonnett to Göteborg FC. And more moves abroad for U.S. women’s national team players are in the works, sources told Yahoo Sports.

Calling it a mass exodus of USWNT stars out of the National Women’s Soccer League wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. More accurately, it’s an exodus from the United States, where the COVID-19 pandemic is still not under control.

Players who hadn’t expressed interest in playing club soccer outside of the U.S. are considering it now, according to multiple sources who spoke to Yahoo Sports.

For some players, it’s over concerns that life won’t resume to normal anytime soon in America, where both cases and deaths are higher than for many similarly wealthy nations. Joining a team abroad is a way out of the mess the U.S. is dealing with.

Most players want to play games, and the options in the U.S. aren’t appealing. They can play in restrictive bubbles described as “luxurious prisons.” Or they can play a year’s worth of games packed into a fraction of the time, as MLS is attempting now with a grueling gauntlet.

Although the NWSL is exploring a return to play through regional mini-bubbles, the proposal falls well short of a full slate of games, meaning the season will feature more downtime than usual. The coronavirus, however, is too widespread to attempt a “normal” season and not expect the problems that have forced United Soccer League and Major League Baseball to cancel games.

Whatever U.S. leagues are doing, it’s a far cry from the English Premier League, which finished its season last month.

Players who otherwise would’ve stayed in the U.S. to play have been nudged elsewhere, solely by COVID-19. As one agent told Yahoo Sports: “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

2020 brings unique benefit for USWNT players

While leaving is an increasingly attractive option for USWNT players, it’s one that other athletes and male soccer players in the U.S. probably won’t be able to follow, even if they want to.

Players in MLS, for instance, are locked into contracts that prevent them from leaving unless their club agrees to let them go, which clubs are reluctant to do. MLS clubs tend to be stingy when it comes to selling players abroad because MLS takes a cut of transfer fees and clubs tend to value their own players more than the global market does. (See the failed would-be transfers of Luciano Acosta and Aaron Long for examples.)

For most USWNT players in the NWSL, nothing is stopping them from leaving the league if a club elsewhere is willing to sign them. The USWNT’s collective bargaining agreement, which has been the subject of a bitter legal dispute with U.S. Soccer, offers pandemic-proof benefits.

On paper, it appears that Lavelle left the Washington Spirit and Mewis left the North Carolina Courage to join Manchester City. In actuality, those players never had contracts with their NWSL clubs. The only contract they had was with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which launched the NWSL and offers incentives for USWNT players to compete in the league.

Emily Sonnett and other USWNT NWSL players never really had contracts with their clubs. They had them with U.S. Soccer. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Emily Sonnett and other USWNT NWSL players never really had contracts with their clubs. They had them with U.S. Soccer. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

USWNT players in the NWSL are global free agents. In non-pandemic times, any USWNT player can opt out of the NWSL but she would lose a significant salary, a trade-off that usually isn’t worth it.

In 2020, as determined by the team’s CBA, 17 USWNT players are guaranteed contracts that include $100,000 salaries paid by the federation as long as they all compete in the NWSL. In off-cycle years, which means years without World Cups or Olympics, as many as four salaried players are allowed to leave the NWSL. But 2020 was supposed to be an Olympic year, so technically no one on a salary is supposed to leave. The CBA states players have to play a full season in the NWSL.

Due to the pandemic, the NWSL didn’t officially have a season. Both U.S. Soccer and the USWNT Players Association agreed that the NWSL Challenge Cup would be considered optional, meaning there is no penalty for players like Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press, who opted out.

That means Lavelle, Mewis and any other USWNT player can head overseas without giving up a $100,000 salary, regardless of whether the USWNT plays another game in 2020. (U.S. Soccer is looking at options for camps and games in the fall, but nothing is finalized, per sources.)

In addition to the $100,000 USWNT salary, players can get a separate $75,000 salary paid for NWSL allocation. Lavelle, Mewis and others would have to forgo that, but sources say the wages paid by Manchester City will make up for it.

What’s next for USWNT players and the NWSL?

Losing the household names of women’s soccer is not ideal for the NWSL, but it’s also not the NWSL’s fault. The league can’t control the United States’ handling of the pandemic. It can only respond to it, which required Herculean efforts during the successful Challenge Cup.

As Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler recently put it: “It’s not players fleeing who don’t want to be in our environment. There are players that need time on the ball.”

The NWSL’s pod proposal could be enough to keep more players from leaving, but the losses have already been significant. In addition to Mewis, Lavelle and Sonnett, plenty of non-USWNT players have gone on loans or secured transfers from NWSL clubs that have opted to do right by their players and allow them to go abroad.

In just the past week, four players have left OL Reign, including Welsh midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has been one of the NWSL’s best players since its inception in 2013. Another four have left the Chicago Red Stars and the Orlando Pride each. The North Carolina Courage and Sky Blue FC have also seen players leave.

Those exits come as some transfer windows are already closing. Sweden’s window closed last week. The windows for England, Denmark and Iceland will shut in less than three weeks. France, Germany and Norway close in October. The stream of players to Europe will continue until the windows for the most popular women’s leagues close.

The good news for the NWSL is that many of these players are leaving on short-term loans and should be back for 2021. That’s only good news if the pandemic is under control in the U.S. by then, which appears increasingly unlikely under the Trump Administration.

In the NWSL, one-year contracts are common, despite new rules that allow longer ones. The flood of non-USWNT players leaving could continue as contracts expire, even if NWSL clubs wanted to keep them.

Some USWNT players have been courted by deep-pocketed clubs in Europe, but have opted not to go because the leagues they compete in, such as in Spain, aren’t competitive enough. If the NWSL can’t have a “normal” enough season again in 2021, those foreign offers may gain more traction.

Even if 2021 ushers in a more controlled pandemic, the NWSL is on track to have fewer USWNT players in the league than ever.

That’s partly due to the players who will have left this year, including Lavelle and Mewis. If the Olympics are further delayed, players will not feel tethered to the national team’s base of operations.

That would raise thornier issues about the USWNT contracts that ended up being such a blessing this year. The maximum number of salaried players allowed to go abroad in 2021 is three — a number that sources say will probably be exceeded — and it seems unlikely that requirement will be ignored, forcing some players to give up their salaries.

After all, the USWNT’s CBA wasn’t designed for the unusual circumstances of this pandemic. The contract was part of a strategic shift by the USWNT and U.S. Soccer to make club play and national team duty less intertwined.

Women’s leagues are still in their infancy compared to the men — partly because women’s soccer was illegal in many countries for years — but the structure around club soccer is growing. The USWNT’s current CBA reflects that, as players have more freedom of movement if leagues around the world are willing to pay them for their services.

Right now, plenty of European clubs are doing exactly that — and more than ever, USWNT players are interested.

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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