Growth and expansion in American women’s club soccer is no longer just tied to the first division. This season marks the return of the United Soccer League W-League, the new second division in U.S. Women’s Club Soccer. The league will begin play in May 2022 with 30 teams from across the United States.
The word ‘return’ is key when speaking about the W-League because this isn’t the first time that the league has operated. From 1995 to 2015, the USL (which also runs the second, third, and fourth divisions in American men’s club soccer) ran the W-League with multiple divisions and teams from across the United States. Although the league was amateur, the league provided valuable experience and opportunities for players to get game experience out of college. Women’s club soccer in the United States has a very complicated past, with multiple leagues stopping and starting so that level of consistency provided stability during some very dark times.
When the league folded in 2015, it left a very major gap in American women’s soccer. As opposed to leagues in other parts of the world, the lower divisions of American men’s and women’s soccer are typically filled with players who are either a.) college players looking for additional training in the offseason (men’s and women’s college soccer only runs in the fall) and b.) professional players who are looking to get back into the top level. While both sides have had trouble finding financial stability, the women’s game in particular has struggled to create a pipeline from the top division to the lower divisions.
So what makes this W-League different from its predecessors? The biggest change seems to be in the USL. Since the W-League folded, the USL on the men’s side has pivoted from being a loose association of clubs with a Wild West mentality for rules to a league that has grown exponentially in under ten years. That the league has broken free of Major League Soccer while securing a major television contract for all of its leagues (it currently operates under a three level system with a Championship, League One, and League Two) is a tremendous sign of how far it has come.
Much like it did with the men’s side, the USL seems focused on incremental growth with the W-League. While the 2022 season will be for amateur players only (the league calls itself ‘a pre-professional league’) the opportunity for top college/amateur players to get game times in a professional environment is a huge step in the right direction. That the league is also working with a mix of teams from NWSL (North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville) top youth club teams (Manhattan SC and Cedar Stars Academy) should make for some excellent matches and a great chance for players to grow.
That growth will not just be limited to the field. The league has also committed to improving opportunities for women in sports, aligning itself with Women in Soccer, an organization that helps connect women with opportunities and education opportunities within the game. In terms of next steps, the W-League really has left that open-ended. Growth and expansion are certainly on its mind, in particular with sponsorship and finding a streaming/television partner (one would expect their rights to be tied into the USL when that television contract comes up). Much will depend on the success of the first season and if the league can create a foundation of supporters to build off of. The opportunity is there, now it is time to deliver.