Those who compete in the National Women’s Soccer League consider it the most competitive league in the world. Those who are outside of it? Their opinions vary greatly and are not always positive.
In England on Tuesday, Manchester United coach Marc Skinner reflected on the physical 1-1 Champions League draw against Paris Saint-Germain, saying: “That was the closest to an NWSL match I’ve ever experienced.” “He was an opponent of the NWSL.” The implication of his comment was not a compliment.
Skinner, who coached the NWSL’s Orlando Pride from 2019 to 2021, went on to talk about the transitional nature of the NWSL and “how there wasn’t really a love for ball preparation.”
Your opinion (and your use of the word “transition” as if it were some kind of insult) is not unique. Critics of the NWSL detest the fast pace of the league’s matches and consider it inferior to the possession-based style preferred by Europe’s top teams, with Barcelona being the most extreme example.
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Spain’s triumph in this year’s World Cup and the United States women’s team’s historic exit in the round of 16 likely served as confirmation bias for many about which style of play is most effective. The Spanish team has deep connections with Barcelona, while 22 of the 23 players on the American squad play in the NWSL.
All of which raises a trick question: Do leagues like England’s Women’s Super League and Spain’s F League better prepare players for success?
The premise of that question assumes that the NWSL lacks technical skill and tactical nuance, but if that argument was true in the past, it doesn’t hold up today. Playing styles in the NWSL have evolved (possibly very slowly, mind you, but they have moved forward) and the league remains home to an abundance of world-class talent. Now, those teams can exploit their opponents in several ways, transition moments being just one of them.
“Now I look at the league and say, ‘Everyone has the ability to knock you down with the ball,'” said OL Reign coach Laura Harvey, who has coached in the league for at least part of every regular season since its inception. in 2013.
“I feel like it’s a double-edged sword,” Harvey told ESPN. “And I think the difference between here and leagues around the world, especially in Europe, is that a lot of teams in Europe are solid defensively. They do it at the bottom of the field and when they win, their first thought is to keep it, while “So the first thought here is, when you win, can you score? To me, that’s very dangerous.”
Harvey’s point about teams increasingly valuing the ball is best illustrated by the evolution of the North Carolina Courage’s style.
The 2018 Courage lost just once in 24 regular season matches, winning the NWSL Shield, the NWSL Championship and the first women’s version of the International Champions Cup by defeating European giant Lyon, 1-0. That era of the Courage, who also won the double in 2019, was defined by relentless high pressing that suffocated teams in their own defensive third and pounced on mistakes, taking advantage of a host of system-generated opportunities.
This season, a completely remodeled Courage team leads the NWSL in several statistical categories that demonstrate their desire to keep the ball, and the next closest teams aren’t even close. According to TruMedia/Stats Perform, North Carolina’s 40 league build-up attacks (sequences of 10+ passes that end in a shot or touch in the box) are almost twice as many as the next team, the Portland Thorns. with 21. According to FBRef, North Carolina leads the NWSL in possession (59.3%), total passes attempted and completed, and progressive distance traveled.
North Carolina, a team still often associated with a direct brand of soccer, is the most possession-oriented team in the NWSL. The final product is there too. The approach has the Courage in third place heading into the final weekend of the NWSL regular season, and it has also produced some of the best team goals of the season.
NJ/NY Gotham FC offers further proof of the advancement of tactics in the NWSL. A team that lost 12 straight games last season, including five in a row by exclusion, is breathing new life under first-year head coach Juan Carlos Amorós, a Spaniard who spent nearly a decade as Tottenham’s co-manager in England. Gotham quickly went from a disjointed mess to the team that attempted the second-most passes in the NWSL this season, controlled the second-most possession in games behind the Courage and sits in fourth place heading into final weekend.
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Looking at the relatively basic statistic of passes attempted this season, the bottom half of that table features only one team currently in playoff position, the Washington Spirit, which ranks last in total attempts. Teams that keep the ball are generally rewarded.
This is important for reasons beyond the NWSL defending itself collectively in a discussion about the quality of the league. The NWSL isn’t the reason the U.S. women’s national team played so poorly in the 2023 World Cup, but it is home to nearly every player on the U.S. roster, and that means that the NWSL must be part of the solution to help US women return to the top of the world stage.
International soccer is often won in moments of transition, which (in theory) should benefit the American style of play. Moments of transition, however, cannot disguise the inability to solve tactical problems in possession, which is where the United States and its players have long struggled. The problem was exacerbated by the improved tactical quality of opponents at the 2023 World Cup.
If the United States wants to improve in this area in the future, it will need a new coach (yet to be hired) capable of implementing those tactics in the short term. In the long term, US Soccer faces existential questions about a youth system that has largely emphasized results and money over actual player development. Somewhere in the middle is the NWSL as the daily training environment for senior players in the United States.
England, which reached the 2023 World Cup final a year after becoming European champions, included 20 WSL players in its World Cup squad this summer. A look at the top of the table in England last season shows the value of possession: the top four teams in the table also ranked in the top four for passes attempted and progressive passing distance, according to FBRef. The number of passes attempted and completed by those teams is also roughly comparable to the Courage’s this year.
The disparity is much greater in League F, where Barcelona rule year after year with near-perfect seasons, keeping a whopping 70.4% of the ball in the 2022-23 season (compared to the league’s worst 37.2% of Sporting Huelva). Barcelona is setting a certain standard of play, but that does not mean that it is replicated throughout the league.
As with most things in the NWSL, there is much less disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom. The NWSL collectively needs a healthier balance between fast-paced transition play and more methodical possession to keep the league in the conversation as the best in the world. More importantly, finding that prepares players for success at the national and international level and therefore makes the NWSL more attractive to the best players in the world.
San Diego Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney says the NWSL is the “fastest” league she has ever been a part of as a coach or player. She and her team have fought for the NWSL Shield in each of their two seasons using a style of play that combines direct play with manipulating opponents without the ball. It is a style that is not necessarily rooted in ball possession, but is incisive.
“I think there’s more possession in this league now than there was last year,” Stoney said. “I think certain teams are possession-based. I think being able to mix up your game in this league, that’s really important. Being able to launch attacks quickly, being able to slow the game down, being able to control the momentum.”
As both Stoney and Harvey point out, the athleticism of the American game is something that must be incorporated into a team’s playing style to optimize its effectiveness. It is not something that should be repressed. Both coaches also pointed to better defensive schemes in 2023, reversing a trend that saw a drop in the quality of individual and collective defense in recent years. Barring an unprecedented final weekend that changes this, there were fewer total goals scored this season than last.
Straight play exists and always will exist in the NWSL, and everywhere else on the planet. The Spirit, for example, have had relative success this season despite ranking last in the league in possession, passing and passing distance, among other categories that illustrate how direct (and foul-prone against their opponents) they are. . Deploying forward Trinity Rodman in open space and Ashley Hatch poaching in front of goal can make that work.
Portland is the epitome of finding the right mix of styles. The Thorns are perennial contenders and are back at the top of the table heading into the final weekend (like last year, when they let the NWSL Shield slip away with a fortuitous draw in Gotham). Portland can build through a talented midfield backed by defensive midfielder Sam Coffey, who leads the league in assists, but the Thorns can also attack quickly through 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith and strike partner Morgan Weaver.
Different games require different strategic approaches, an axiom that applies to the NWSL, the UEFA Champions League or the World Cup. At times, that will seem more direct and physical, even for a European heavyweight like Paris Saint-Germain.
When Skinner arrived in Orlando in 2019, he said he wanted to “create art” with the way his team played. He quickly felt humiliated. Orlando finished in last place that year with 16 points and just four wins in 24 games, while conceding a league-record 53 goals.
Two years later, Skinner admitted that his comment was “out of character at the time.” He had learned a familiar lesson about the need to adapt to the NWSL: Possession-based teams can be successful, but not without owning those moments of transition. For a brief period early in the 2021 season, an Orlando team that had found the right balance of styles sat atop the NWSL table.
The “art” required to be successful in the NWSL is more like an evolving science. There is notable progress in the quality of the league’s play, but there is still much progress to be made.