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NWSL parity is just as vital as USWNT stars

After a weekend of blowout scores from Europe, NWSL shows why it’s still an attractive league despite losing some USWNT stars.

Soccer: International Friendly Women's Soccer-Romania at USA Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATED with Tottenham’s position as a third-level team.

It was a weekend of funny results from European leagues where Americans are playing. Not funny ha-ha, depending on how mean a person you are, but funny-oh-geez-really.

Crystal Dunn played 71 minutes for Chelsea and scored a goal in their 7-0 romp over Doncaster. Alex Morgan scored a brace as Lyon handled Albi 5-0. And Heather O’Reilly picked up two assists as Arsenal absolutely thrashed Tottenham 10-0. Carli Lloyd was the only player to see a close result, as Manchester City beat Reading 1-0.

Those aren’t the most competitive results, and they’re no fluke either, although Tottenham is a team from the third level of women’s soccer in England. There’s a definite imbalance in both the FA Women’s Super League and in the French Division 1 Féminine. Lyon routinely beats teams by five goals or more, with competition from only a few other teams in D1 like Paris Saint-Germain, and the WSL has seen the women’s teams backed by big money, like Chelsea and Manchester City, start to spend the competition into the ground. In the NWSL 2016 regular season, 13 out of 100 games had a goal differential of three or more (poor Boston accounted for seven of these games). In WSL 1’s 2016 season, 18 out of 72, or 25% of games had a three or more GD. And in D1, from their 2016-16 season? A whopping 59 out of 132 games, or 44.7%.

That’s not to say these leagues don’t have exciting games, or that the teams in them don’t play fun soccer. There are way too many talented players in both the English and French leagues to dismiss either one. But they are less balanced than NWSL, which is why despite a bunch of Americans leaving NWSL in 2017 (either temporarily or longer-term, like Dunn), there’s really nothing to worry about, at least in terms of league attractiveness to top talent. No NWSL team can compete with Lyon or Man City’s money, but money is not the be-all end-all of a player’s reasons for committing to a team.

Of course, it’s a more sensitive issue in women’s soccer since many players still can’t make a comfortable living off of the game. So it’s understandable any time a player goes somewhere for money (I’m not saying that’s what any of the players mentioned above did, but if it was part of their motivation, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that). But among the Alex Morgans and the Carli Lloyds of soccer, they can afford to have a more big-picture view, which is presumably why they would sign short-term contracts in Europe so they could return to NWSL for at least part of the season. There’s value to be found in experiencing different playstyles in a different league, but the competition of NWSL is still a fairly good lure.

Some of these players may also feel loyalty to their teams, or a bit of pressure from US Soccer to stay local whenever possible. But those are just more reasons why fans shouldn’t fret when big-name American players go overseas. And in return, you get players like Amandine Henry and Kim Little, who have both cited the challenges of America’s signature fast play and emphasis on physicality, all while a new generation of young players like Rose Lavelle introduce more technicality into the league. Of course, Little has returned to the WSL, presumably to be closer to home as Scotland prepares for Euro 2017. But new rumors are swirling that the single-name soccer player is in talks to join NWSL. That’s right: Marta.

That Marta would even consider NWSL outside of what is pretty much her home base now in Sweden speaks to the league’s attractiveness on merits other than money. Orlando, the team rumored to be in talks with Marta, certainly couldn’t offer her a six-figure salary as they still operate under strict salary cap rules. Even with amenities, Marta is not getting rich by going to Orlando (and she gets paid fairly well by her sponsors regardless). If money is not the deciding factor, then to get her away from the Damallsvenskan, it has to be, at least in part, the promise of a fiercely competitive season.

NWSL’s salary cap is creeping upwards. Better ownership groups are starting to seep into the league. Assuming Los Angeles buys in, the next league expansion should give it a fairly strong presence on both coasts. They just signed a three-year deal with A+E, who took a 25% equity stake in the league. WNT players are naturally going to look around in these off years between big tournaments, and no one should begrudge them the opportunity to maximize their careers and earning potential while they can. NWSL itself will be fine without them, and will be waiting for them when they return.