As it opens its 10th regular season, the women’s soccer league no longer faces questions about survival. But its aspirations and operations are still a work in progress.
Credit…Photo illustration by Dakarai Akil
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By Allison McCann
LOS ANGELES — Angel City F.C., one of two new franchises in the National Women’s Soccer League, arrived for its first season equipped with dozens of celebrity investors, sleek branding, copious media coverage and a well-choreographed social media campaign.
What it did not have, at least consistently, was a place to play soccer.
Early this year, just as Angel City’s players began arriving in Los Angeles for the team’s inaugural season, an agreement the team had made to use the Los Angeles Rams’ practice fields at California Lutheran University was put on hold. The issue? The N.F.L. team was on a Super Bowl run and still using them.
Adjusting on the fly, Angel City arranged to spend the first few weeks of its preseason at Pepperdine University. But just as the players were to return to Cal Lutheran, team officials decided the school’s turf football field they had been given wasn’t adequate. They canceled training, and the players were offered a spa day instead.
“Every start-up has to adjust and pivot: I’m comfortable with those last-minute changes. Having said that, we have 24 players and a coaching staff of 20, and it’s not as easy for them,” said Julie Uhrman, Angel City’s president and one of its founders, adding, “Sometimes we fall short of delivering for the players, and it’s devastating.”
Missteps for a new team aren’t surprising. But to veterans of the N.W.S.L., Angel City’s early problems — not only its field issues, but also the idea that professional athletes would prefer a spa day to a rigorous practice only weeks before their first game — were concerning signs of how far even the league’s best-funded teams still need to go.
“That’s exactly what I mean when I talk about operational rigor,” Jessica Berman, the new N.W.S.L. commissioner, said when asked about her immediate priorities. “It is the sort of stuff behind the curtain — how the sausage gets made — that really paves the way for the league’s growth. The commercialization and the revenue will flow from creating an infrastructure within the league that is consistent, professionalized, credible, reliable.”
Yet as the league opens its 10th regular season this weekend, Angel City’s stumbles on the basics, after a year in which the N.W.S.L. was rocked by claims of player mistreatment, have many around the league once again asking:
What is the N.W.S.L.? And what does it want to be?
A player-led push for change
The arrival of Angel City, along with a second new franchise in San Diego, was expected to offer a fresh start for the N.W.S.L. after a very public reckoning last year. In a matter of months, five of the league’s 10 head coaches were fired or resigned for off-field conduct, including one who was accused of coercing a player to have sex with him. (Yet another coach, James Clarkson of the Houston Dash, was suspended on Tuesday over unspecified findings in a continuing review of “current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.”)
The scandals were an existential moment for the league. Its commissioner, criticized for mishandling reports of coaches abusing and bullying players, resigned. Team owners faced hard questions about their own failings. Even some of the league’s most devoted fans turned on their teams, demanding answers and accountability.
The players took it a step further: For one remarkable week, they refused to play at all.
Veteran players said the show of player power was not new. Things had been changing, they said, since the league’s early years, when sponsors came in the form of family-run meatpacking businesses, broadcast deals were next to nonexistent and players were reluctant to ask for more.
“Keeping everything quiet, dealing with it, sucking it up because we just need to make progress and we don’t want to do anything that could hurt the league,” Yael Averbuch West, the general manager of Gotham F.C. and a former player, said of the mind-set in the early years of the league.
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