By Elisa Uccello
Besides the awe-striking performance of the teams inside the soccer field, these athletes are also stars in the battlefield for equality.
In spite of the immense progress of the feminist movement in the last century, female athletes are still consistently subjected to gender discrimination. The lack of coverage and investment in women’s soccer contribute to restraining its development, but isn’t enough to prevent thousands of astonishingly talented women from pursuing their passion. The USA’s National Women’s Soccer League is, hitherto, one of few professional women’s leagues in the world. Besides the awe-striking performance of the teams inside the soccer field, these athletes are also stars in the battlefield for equality.
The NWSL was established in 2012 after the previous female league (Women’s Professional Soccer) folded in April of that year. It originally consisted of eight teams: Chicago Red Stars, Boston Breakers, Western New York Flash, Seattle Reign, Portland Thorns, Kansas City, New Jersey Sky Blue, and Washington Spirit. The minimum salary was no more than six thousand dollars per year and the majority of the teams didn’t have a home stadium.
Eight years after its foundation, the league has seen significant improvements. The minimum salary is now twenty thousand, all teams have home stadiums and training facilities, the average attendance per game has doubled, and major companies have started to invest in the women’s game. The Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City folded, New York Flash moved to North Carolina to form the NC Courage, and the MLS teams Orlando City, Real Salt Lake, and Houston Dynamo have founded women’s sides, Orlando Pride, Utah Royals and Houston Dash. The league now consists of nine teams, with two expansion plans ahead.
Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the regular NWSL season had to be cancelled and, for almost three months, the players had to train inside their homes. As the pandemic progressed and the American government failed to combat it, the teams had to measure risks and calculate step by step their return to the field. By May, players were training individually in club facilities. A few weeks later, small group training was introduced. Finally they were able to get back with the team, being tested twice a week and doing their part as to respect quarantine requirements.
In early June Lisa Baird, NWSL commissioner, released the plan for the first and only edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup. It was a month long tournament offered by businessman and owner of the Utah Royals, Dell Loy Hansen, and with partnerships with major companies such as Google, Budweiser, Nike, P&G, and CBS. All the teams went to the so-called NWSL bubble; a complex of fields and housing in Salt Lake City where the players, staff, photographers, and administrators stayed isolated for the duration of the tournament. Everyone in the bubble had to undergo regular testing, successfully summing up over 2100 negative tests by the final whistle.
Eight teams participated in this cup since Orlando Pride had to forego after a number of players tested positive a week prior to the tournament. This is how the tournament went: in the first round, all teams played four games receiving three points for a win, one for a draw and zero for a defeat. The criteria for point ties was goal differential and then goals scored. After the first round ranking was complete, the play offs consisted of the top scorer of the first round, which was, unsurprisingly, the NC Courage, that won the league in 2018 and 2019, against the last placed team of the first round, which was the Portland Thorns. The second (Washington Spirit) played against the seventh (OL Reign), the third (Sky Blue FC) played against the sixth (Chicago Red Stars), and the fourth (Houston Dash) played against the fifth (Utah Royals). From there on it was win or go home.
Ironically, the only team that was eliminated in regular time was the number one, NC Courage, in an exciting 1-0 match-up. Houston Dash, Sky Blue, and Chicago Red Stars advanced after penalty shootouts. The Red Stars beat Sky Blue on a tight 4-3 match-up, and captain Rachel Daly scored the game winner for the Dash against the Thorns, taking them to their first ever tournament final.
The Houston Dash faced the Chicago Red Stars in the championship game at Rio Tinto Stadium, July 26th. Less than five minutes into the game, Dash midfielder Kristie Mewis was fouled inside the area, earning a shot from the penalty spot that was converted by Canadian international Sophie Schmidt. The match was tight all throughout, and only in stoppage time was Shea Groom able to make it 2-0 and guarantee the first ever club trophy for the Houston Dash. England national team player Rachel Daly was voted the MVP of the tournament and took home the golden boot after scoring three goals and assisting twice. The NWSL was the first professional sport league to get back in the United States and successfully hold a corona free tournament.