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Christen Press saga illustrates NWSL’s growing pains

This was always bound to happen - now it’s up to the league and US Soccer to think of ways to adapt.

South Korea v United States Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Where in the world is Christen Press? The top US women’s national team news item at the moment is probably concern over what club, if any, Press will land at after refusing to play for the Houston Dash. Let’s backtrack to the beginning.

How did we get here?

Just before the 2018 NWSL college draft (literally minutes before it was scheduled to begin), the league announced a three-way trade between the Houston Dash, the Chicago Red Stars, and Sky Blue FC. The major pieces of the trade were Houston sending Carli Lloyd to Sky Blue, Sky Blue sending Sam Kerr to Chicago, and Chicago sending Press to Houston. On paper, a win-win-win for three players who wanted to move on to different clubs. In practice, a win-win-yikes.

Practically from the moment the trade was announced, there were skeptics that Press would actually end up in Houston, even with the club attempting to change Press’ mind by having her come visit and tour the Dash/Dynamo facilities and talk to staff. It’s now being reported Press wanted to go to a west coast team, most likely making the Portland Thorns her preferred #1 with Seattle or Utah also in contention as per Caitlin Murray’s report for The Guardian. John Halloran at the Equalizer reported that Press eventually agreed to a trade to Utah, but by then Utah wasn’t in a place to trade for her anymore. Now Grant Wahl is reporting that former USSF president Sunil Gulati suggested that Press stick with Houston for the 2018 season to clear the way for a trade to a possible LAFC team in 2019, but Press isn’t biting on that either.

Houston has accepted that Press won’t sign a contract with them, and so now the task is to find a trade for value despite every other team in the league knowing that the Dash really have no leverage as they attempt to unload Press’ rights. According to Murray, the Dash have gotten offers for Press but none that they like enough to say yes. If a trade doesn’t happen, Press will no doubt look to Sweden, where the transfer window is still open and she already has experience after playing for Göteborg and Tyresö. It’s simply not an option for her to cool her heels without a team in a World Cup qualifying year, not when she’s already an on-and-off bench player for Jill Ellis.

Deeper systemic issues

The real question that has arisen from all of this mishegas is when and how will the structure of the USSF/NWSL relationship change? Currently US Soccer allocates federation players, keeping most of the top Americans in the league, which makes them easily trackable by USSF while simultaneously associating the biggest WNT names with NWSL. That means federation players sign their contracts with US Soccer, not their clubs, which makes for an uncomfortable duality between federation and non-federation players who do have contracts directly with the clubs. Federation players who aren’t fully beholden to their clubs can make for things like delayed reporting to training or longer-than-necessary absences.

There’s no pretending that USSF’s support isn’t a big piece of NWSL’s continued existence. The current salary cap of $350,000 (just increased from $315,000 in 2017) for an 18-20 player roster is probably already an ask on the budgets of the smaller teams. USSF’s involvement allows USWNT players to earn a somewhat competitive salary and the cautious approach to the salary cap has helped the league survive into an unprecedented sixth season. The initial structure of the USSF/NWSL relationship was necessary for the stability of a league that creates the next level of aspiration after soccer and feeds back into the national team. But we are now approaching a threshold where we have to ask if that setup is actually worth the side effects or if there’s a more productive way to allocate that support.

Balancing out the equation

This is not to say that a player who asks for the best possible circumstances for herself is wrong. Even national team players aren’t exactly earning rest-of-your-life money, unless they have excellent financial advisers. If a player knows she’s going to be miserable at a certain club, then she has every right to say she doesn’t want to go to that club. And thanks to Houston misunderstanding their own league’s anti-tampering rules (or possibly NWSL not making those rules clear; it could be column A, column B, or both), apparently they didn’t get confirmation from Press herself that she would be willing to play for them, instead going off secondhand reassurances. Now Press finds herself in a position where she can still hope for a trade while not beholden to any contract with the club. Why is it the player’s responsibility to suck it up for a season when by all accounts she made it clear she didn’t want to be traded to Houston and didn’t tell anyone she would play there? Houston and Chicago made the play they thought was best for them; Christen Press or any other player has a reciprocal right to look out for themselves.

Now, there is context it would be foolish to overlook. To a certain extent, WNT players do have some responsibility to help build women’s soccer in this country. It’s just a fact that women’s soccer, and women’s sports in general, is still in an uphill battle, and pushing to new heights always requires sacrifices. Just about any USWNT player could take a shot at Europe and several of them have made Champions League runs. There are a handful of teams across the Atlantic that can shell out (relatively) big bucks and being pro-player movement means accepting some Americans will want to go to France or Sweden or Germany. But we also have to accept that NWSL needs its American stars in order to survive at the moment, and if USWNT players acknowledge that the league is necessary for the growth of their own national program, then they also acknowledge that many of them will have to sacrifice truly free movement in order to ensure a better future for the players that come after them. That is the shitty truth of what it means to be a pro female athlete right now; women’s sports history is littered with players who had to accept less than what they were worth because otherwise, they just wouldn’t play at all.

Does Press holding out for the best possible situation signal a shift in this paradigm, though? Surely she would only make such a request if she thought the league could weather it. Players beginning to more staunchly advocate for themselves instead of quietly accepting the status quo is an indicator of growing pains, the kind that happen naturally as a league grows beyond its initial conception.

Necessary adjustments

If Press succeeds, it might be the thumb on the scale that tips things a little too far into USSF’s side of the USSF/NWSL balance. So how to rebalance in a way that doesn’t strip away too much of USSF’s support while giving NWSL clubs a little more independence? USSF could still help subsidize player salaries, but by just directly giving the money to each club so that the contract is between club and player, not fed and player. Players would still have separate contracts with the federation governed by the USWNT collective bargaining agreement, and would also have contracts with their clubs. That would take some coordination between USSF and NWSL to help smooth out conflicts that come from having a dual obligation, but a) USSF and NWSL are already so closely entwined that coordination should be easy to facilitate and b) that’s what FIFA windows are for anyway.

This is a very interesting time for American women’s soccer. There are still a lot of factors at play in maintaining the delicate ecosystem of a sustainable pro league. But after years of careful conservation, the players in that ecosystem are naturally testing the boundaries of what is possible without upsetting the balance. It’s up to the organizing bodies to evolve, to understand the shifting of needs, to see what is limiting the system and what might nurture it.

As for Christen Press, maybe she’ll have to make a sacrifice and just be unhappy for a season of her career in Houston. Maybe not. We can all hope for a better system - on a league and on a general social scale - that doesn’t require female athletes to have to shoulder responsibilities beyond themselves and their teammates for the sake of future generations.