Amandine Henry could have signed with any club in the world. And at age 26, in the prime of her career, she just arrived in Portland to bring her magic to the NWSL. A starter on the French national team, and a key component for nine seasons of Olympique Lyonnais, the most successful women’s club in history, Henry is widely considered the best defensive midfielder in the world. With OL, she’s won the French league nine times and the UEFA Champions League three times. She earned a spot on FIFPro’s inaugural Women’s World XI, was named the second-best player in Europe in 2015, and was awarded the silver ball at the 2015 World Cup, despite France being eliminated in the quarter-finals.
Henry is probably the highest-profile international to make the move to the States, but her decision is far from unprecedented. Brazilian legend Marta spent three seasons in the US during the short, financially troubled tenure of Women’s Professional Soccer. More recently, the NWSL has also attracted players who rank among the world’s best. Spanish national team captain Vero Boquete and German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer both had stints with the Portland Thorns (Boquete also played on several WPS teams)—and Angerer liked Portland so much she stayed on as a coach after retiring last year. In Seattle, Kim Little, Scotland’s absurdly talented midfielder, has played a crucial role in the Reign’s crafty, prolific attack since her arrival in 2014.
For these players, the American league’s attractions are many, from relatively strong fan support to stadiums and organizations that often outclass their home leagues. Given the struggles of the NWSL and its predecessors—better documented, by some outlets, than actual gameplay in the league—it might come as a surprise, to casual observers, that the United States has long been seen as the high water mark for women’s club football.
While the situation varies from country to country, in most cases, the opportunity for women to play professionally didn’t exist in Europe until the late 2000s or early 2010s. Some leagues, like the Spanish Primera División, still aren’t fully professional (in fact, Spain still has a regulation on the books specifying that professional men’s leagues and professional women’s leagues for a given sport can’t coexist). The Women’s United Soccer Association, which ran from 2000-2003, was the world’s first fully professional women’s league. For some, WUSA and its successor, WPS, represented the only chance to play at an elite level, let alone as professionals.
“I knew that if I wanted to be a professional and play at the highest level, I needed to go abroad,” Boquete wrote in an email. Not only did Spain not have a professional league, but membership on the Spanish national team didn’t count for much: by 2010 when she signed with the WPS Buffalo Flash, La Roja had qualified for only one major tournament in its history, the 1997 European Championship. “My chance to get exposed to the world was playing in the US,” she explained. “Then, European teams got interested in me, too.”
To be fair, although it isn’t unique, the dismal situation in Spain isn’t representative of Europe as a whole, either. The French Division 1 Féminine, the Swedish Damallsvenskan and the German Frauen-Bundesliga are in better shape. But the US has draws beyond logistics. One oft-cited factor is the simple desire to experience a different style of play.
“The pace, the speed is totally different,” said Angerer, “It’s much more athletic here.”
Boquete—who’s played in the US, Spain, and a handful of other European leagues—agrees. “The US league is more physical,” she said. “Transitions [between attacking and defending] are faster, and sometimes the tactical side is not important… In Europe, it’s more tactical and technical, more organized.”
NWSL Sees Skills Improving
As much as the stereotype of American players as big, physical, and (it’s implied) brainless is sometimes meant as a slight, those Europeans who make the move see the value in American directness and athleticism. Angerer refers to the lower level of athleticism and slower pace in German soccer as “a weakness,” noting that in recent years, there’s been a push to “combine tactics and athleticism” in her home country. And in the States, both Boquete and Angerer see improvement in skill and tactics.
It’s also true that in spite of critiques of the American style, there’s a striking consensus—at least among players and coaches who’ve chosen to come to the US—that the NWSL is where the best in the world play.
Matthew Buck, director of player management at the Professional Footballers’ Association—the English players’ union—represents Little. He was clear on why she wanted to go to the Reign: “She felt that it was the strongest league in the world. She felt that she could compete with the best players in the world, and she wanted to test herself.”
Henry, though she was unavailable to comment personally, seems to feel the same. “America specifically,” said Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, “and the adventure and new challenge of playing in the best, most competitive league, around players that play on the best team in the world in the US national team,” was what drew her interest to the Thorns.
To merely say that the NWSL is where the best players in the world play doesn’t capture what sets it apart. While Boquete, like Buck and Parsons, calls the NWSL “the best league in the world,” she also clarifies that in her view, “top European teams are better than NWSL playoff teams.”
Despite the USWNT’s long record of global domination, and the number of American players who have ranked among the best in their generation over the years, many of the world’s top players have spent their whole careers in European leagues. Although European federations don’t require national team members to play in their domestic leagues, as the US Soccer Federation does, the rosters of top European teams like France and Germany still play almost exclusively in their home countries. The difference is in how that talent is distributed across clubs.
“It’s more competitive, because the teams are more equal,” said Boquete, comparing the NWSL to European leagues where the same teams tend to dominate year after year.
Olympique Lyonnais has what may well be the most stacked roster in the world. Of the club’s 19 French players more than half are on their national team—most of them starters. Put another way, the list of French players called up for the 2015 World Cup who either play at OL currently or once did is longer, by almost double, than the list of those with no connection to the club (most of the latter group plays for OL’s upstart rival, Paris Saint-Germain). And OL’s rotating cast of internationals reads like the lineup of a women’s soccer supergroup: Saki Kumagai, Shirley Cruz, Lotta Schelin, Megan Rapinoe, Ada Hegerberg.
The effect of that roster has long been utter dominance of French and European competition. To call OL the Barcelona, or the Real Madrid, or the Bayern Munich of women’s soccer feels inadequate. Those teams lose games.
Not only has OL topped the French league for ten straight seasons, and fourteen times in total—the most of any French club on either the men’s or the women’s side. Apart from a 2015 friendly, they haven’t lost since 2014. In the 2015-2016 season, they drew three league games, two against Montpellier and one against PSG, and Juvisy managed to hold them to one goal in a game in March. Against the rest of the league, scorelines like 10-0 are not uncommon.
Although OL is indisputably very good, their ridiculous record speaks as much to a lack of competition as to their own merits. Few French teams can even put up a fight against them. “Your championship [run] ends when you lose your two matches against Lyon,” said visibly frustrated PSG head coach Farid Benstiti in a 2013 interview—and his team is one of the few that comes anywhere close to OL’s level.
It’s not hard to see, then, why a player like Henry might want a taste of something new. “I think that the ceiling factor,” says Parsons, “the competition every week, is something she [will thrive on]. She knows that can push her to another level.”
What makes the NWSL different? One factor is that the league’s roster rules set a limit on the number of US and Canadian national team players allocated to each team. Those slots can be traded between teams, but the limit still makes it impossible for one club to sign the majority of the national team’s starting lineup, as OL has. The league similarly limits the number of international players each team can bring on.
The bigger answer, though, is that the NWSL has a salary cap. The per-team limit of $278,000 exists in part to mandate fiscal responsibility—a lesson learned from two previous leagues that suffocated under the weight of extravagant spending—and in part to ensure a modicum of competitive fairness. In effect, it means that MLS-affiliated teams like the Thorns and the Orlando Pride, which already enjoy advantages like quality, soccer-specific stadiums, preexisting organizations, and consistently high attendance, can’t steamroll the rest of the league by buying up the world’s best players.
It also means that despite relatively strong support for women’s soccer, and despite the general perception that the US is the epicenter of the sport, coming to the NWSL is never a financially-motivated decision for a top European player.
“I can say the salary system in the US, for me,” said Buck, “makes it difficult for the top European players to come to the US, because they can earn substantially more in European leagues.” Discussing what factors influenced Little signing with the Reign, he said simply, “it wouldn’t have been for money, I can say that.”
To be clear, the NWSL isn’t the only league with a salary cap; the English Women’s Super League has a different kind of cap, where clubs are prohibited from spending more than 40% of their operating budget on salaries. But that cap is mostly aimed at enforcing sustainable spending, not mitigating the financial distance between clubs. The WSL hasn’t played host to quite the kind of runaway hegemony enjoyed by OL in France. “But at the same time,” said Buck, “the clubs that are generally more successful do have bigger operating budgets and are able to pay more in salaries.”
This is also not to say that every player in Europe is paid well. In the WSL, Buck estimates that while top players can earn up to £45,000, or about $64,000, for club play, salaries bottom out around £2,000—even less than the NWSL minimum of $7,200.
Still, sufficiently brilliant players, including, in recent years, the American Lindsey Horan, have been reported to earn north of $100,000 at select European clubs. Few people will get specific when it comes to pay (“to be honest, I don’t know what other people earn,” Angerer said, shrugging, when I brought it up), but the tension between wanting to compete at a high level every week and wanting to earn a salary befitting a world-class athlete is there. For the players in this story, the level of competition takes precedence. “Money wasn’t the main point in my decision,” said Boquete.
The NWSL presents other obstacles, too. One is the league’s short season length. “I can’t work for just six months,” Boquete wrote. “[Soccer] is my job, and I need to work for a living.” Since most European leagues run from the fall through the spring, some players, Boquete included, have managed to play in both the NWSL and a European league in the same year. But that arrangement isn’t always possible.
Jodie Taylor, an English international also represented by Buck, played just seven games for Portland last season before heading back to Arsenal this March. For her, a recent break onto her national team meant she needed to be closer to home, so she could stay visible to England coach Mark Sampson. “Jodie just established herself in the national team,” said Buck, “and she felt she needed to play in England in order to give herself the best opportunity heading into next year’s European championship.” The English league runs during the same months as the NWSL, forcing a choice between the two.
Top European players coming to the NWSL represents the reversal of a trend that took root in the twilight hours of WPS, when American stars like Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, and Christen Press flocked to France and Sweden. That they were able to do so while American clubs floundered and shut down demonstrates an advantage of the European model: with virtually all top-tier women’s clubs in Europe attached to men’s clubs, and the leagues themselves administered by national football federations, it’s impossible for whole leagues to collapse like privately-run WUSA and WPS did. Even if an individual club suffers financial ruin, as happened with Sweden’s Tyresö FF in 2014, another club from a lower tier in the system can be counted on to take its place.
In short, although the level of professionalism is sometimes low, European leagues enjoy a stability American leagues historically haven’t.
Incorporating financial stability, decent player salaries, and a high level of competition is a difficult balancing act, one that no league in the world has gotten quite right yet. Both across Europe and in the US, there are glimmers of progress: the NWSL has survived into its fourth year, and (modestly) raised salary limits this season. In England, although not all top-tier teams are fully professional, the Professional Footballers’ Association now allows all WSL players the same level of representation as their male peers—so that, as Buck puts it, “Steph Houghton has the same rights as Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard” when it comes to membership in the union.
Having strong professional leagues around the world—or even one, anywhere, that strikes the right balance—remains a dream, however. It ties into another dream, closer to home, that Boquete has. “To be a girl and play soccer wasn’t common, and wasn’t accepted by society,” she recalls of growing up in Spain. “I had to hear so many comments, macho comments, from everybody… I don’t think it was the same for my American friends. In the US, to be a girl and play soccer is normal and cool. That is my dream: to make that possible in Spain, too, and throughout Europe.” It’s hard to imagine that happening without widespread, robust, visible professional leagues for women.
In Europe, where football generates billions, the remedy seems straightforward: more men’s clubs need to invest in the women’s game. “I’d suggest the most successful [WSL clubs] are the most integrated into the men’s [sides],” said Buck. Yet many of the richest European clubs, including Real Madrid and Manchester United, still stubbornly refuse to get involved.
In the meantime, players like Henry will continue to have to choose between making real money and competing at a high level.