The Houston Dynamo and North Carolina Courage have been enrolled in the ranks of the immortals. North Carolina are the newest champions of NWSL, and the Dynamo are the latest winners of the US Open Cup.
The NWSL has now lived twice as long as any previous women's pro soccer league in the United States, having finished season number six. When Major League Soccer finished its sixth season, it nearly folded.
Sadly, it would not be the most shocking thing if NWSL upped stumps at this point. The Portland Thorns are objectively popular, pulling in an average of 17 grand a game. The Thorns are still a considerable outlier. Four figures and shambolic management are the rule in NWSL. Sky Blue were humiliated back in July by a devastating report of the conditions the league's players face - that is, if the players are not US internationals but mere common folk. The Boston Breakers, survivors since WUSA, folded before the season. The league has been without a commissioner for two seasons now, presumably to the delight of anarchy theorists. And the other comparative attendance bright spot, the Utah Royals, was made possible by FC Kansas City moving. At least the league is on television these days.
Next year is the Women's World Cup, but there is not much evidence that the Women's World Cup does much for the club game here as the male equivalent does for MLS. NWSL still can't just give up on good weather weekend dates, so some playing during the tournament will be necessary. Watch party/game combos might not be feasible in some of the smaller NWSL venues. And, of course, unlike the XY version, the Women's World Cup takes nearly every marketable player in the league away from the club until the tournament, or at least the USWNT's interest in it, is over. To make matters worse, MLS can get a lot of mileage out of its teams and players getting only to the second round. If the USWNT leaves the Women's World Cup in the second round, it would be devastating to the program. NWSL has to hope that the USWNT costs them money as long as possible, because the NWSL can't yet make new stars on its own. The NWSL can, and has, made terrific players - but until they lift a trophy for the United States, they are not stars.
Worse still, if and when the US does win the World Cup again - even if they lose gallantly - the USSF insists on things like parades and victory tours, holding NWSL players back even longer. In 2015, Carli Lloyd was a household name, with highlight reel heroics dazzling sports fans everywhere. She played for the Houston Dash at the time. It's possible she herself doesn't remember.
Unless some day NWSL can get the fanbase to acknowledge "club and country", let alone "club over country," then NWSL is only going to serve as a loss leader and player development program for the USWNT (and, hopefully, Mexico, Canada and other CONCACAF teams, but that's also far down the road). It's possible USSF simply never does this, and only puts in the amount of fan development for NWSL that, for example, the New York Yankees do for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. I'm skeptical of team sports that rely on national loyalties for popularity, and will be until pro curling clubs get television deals. There might be no shortcut at all that gets USWNT fans into NWSL fans, apart from sheer osmosis.
But there should be paths available. NWSL, unlike MLS, can say they offer the pinnacle of quality of play in their sport. The Courage now claim to be the best women's team in the world, which is exactly what I would claim if I were in their shoes. There's no way to test such a thing, and not likely to be any time soon. Ideally North Carolina would simply arrange a game or two with Lyon.
Which points to one potential way forward. NWSL champions could, maybe even should, be invited to the UEFA Women's Champions League. It's a more expensive alternative to simply having the NWSL champion challenge the UEFA champ, but since Lyon went through a much more arduous process to claim the UEFA title than the Courage did for NWSL, it might be more equitable.
Sadly, I will leave the likelihood of UEFA, CONCACAF and the USSF working harmoniously for the good of women's soccer as an exercise for the reader. Prestige and protocol probably prevent a simple meeting between the UEFA Champions League winner and the NWSL champ. How would Lyon feel after winning another French title, then defending their domestic title while winning the continental championship, and then getting thumped by some team that, say, finished fourth and got hot for the playoffs?
The NWSL seems to be ready to brave Los Angeles again. Anschutz Entertainment Group failed miserably with the Los Angeles Sol - well, let me rephrase that. The team was excellent and attendance was high, but AEG only signed on for one season, and when the team wasn't immediately profitable, they tried to sell - to no one, since the buyer would have had to pay rent to AEG to keep playing in Carson. The multitudes of LAFC owners have hopefully learned from Anschutz's disastrous example, and can give the jaded souls of Southern California a good and popular team without giving up after six months or so. In total fairness, the LA Galaxy do have a girls academy that they have put considerable effort and high caliber personnel into.
But if we've learned one thing during our time together - and it's entirely possible that we haven't - it's that youth soccer and pro soccer are two very different types of casserole.
The league needs a second or third Portland in the worst way, and Los Angeles might not be it. I'd feel more comfortable if smaller markets were given a shot. Like, up and coming USL towns, or cities jilted by MLS. Sacramento, St. Louis, Nashville, but most of all Columbus and Cincinnati. Hell is real - and hath no fury.
The Dynamo have entered their names on the most venerable list North American soccer has to offer, and we as diehard soccer history buffs salute them. Diehard soccer history buffs must also bow their heads sadly towards the Philadelphia Union. A quick few glances at Josh Hakala's thecup.us tells me the following weird statistical anomalies. The Union are only the third team in the history of the Open Cup to lose the final three times. The record is four, from the San Pedro Yugoslavs, runners-up in 1971, 1972, 1984 and 1986. St. Louis Kutis is the other three-time loser, in 1954, 1983 and 1985. Kutis beat the Yugoslavs in the 1986 final, which apparently was the last game either team ever played. (Kutis had a brief reappearance in the 1990's, but had no impact on the Open Cup.)
So the Union are the only team to ever lose three finals in a five-year span. It's a frustrating record for a historically frustrating team - this can't be what the Sons of Bens had in mind when they lobbied so hard for a team.
Houston won at home decisively, capping an Open Cup campaign as inspiring as their MLS season has failed to be. The attendance was announced at a respectable, if implausible, 16,060. That number is still larger, and more believable, than many throughout the tournament's history. The 2005 final in Los Angeles, for example, lists the suspiciously round number of 10,000 as the official attendance. They must have counted me twenty or thirty times to get a figure that high.
The Open Cup in the MLS era has wavered between consolation and afterthought. The USSF forces pro teams into the tournament these days, unlike in the days of the first NASL. This is a move of overreach and interference, and one I approve of wholeheartedly. Pro teams should be forced to compete in some sort of nationwide tournament, if only because the sport is still so fragmented. Amateur teams, and semipro teams, given talent and determination, should have a venue to challenge their alleged betters on the field. A knockout tournament is the perfect method for this.
Unfortunately, practical reasons to force MLS teams to mingle with the poor and downtrodden are tough to find. Every suggestion to improve the Open Cup involves the USSF spending money, or MLS teams further inconveniencing themselves. We can make the romantic case for the Open Cup all day and all of the night, as the Kinks sang but were probably not singing about. For a hundred years, the most hated and denigrated sport in America has put on a tournament matching every team with the ability and the desire, across a huge nation from before the Model A to the Internet Age - every single year. Every. Single. Year.
That's what the Dynamo achieved. That's why it's painful for the Union. These teams, however cheerfully or willingly, kept this amazing legacy going for another year. If that's not wonderful, well, why are you here reading about American soccer anyway? Read about real estate or something.
Or maybe I should read up on economics, because the devil on my shoulder and his University of Chicago degree is telling me that MLS and USL can't be asked to act against their self-interest forever. Why do big NCAA basketball schools risk being embarrassed by bible colleges run by televangelists? Because it's worth it to them. Why is the FA Cup, England's equivalent of the US Open Cup, not anywhere near the big deal it once was? Because over time it has become less worthwhile to teams at the top of the Premiership. Was I simply looking for an excuse to type "England's equivalent of the US Open Cup" and pretend it wasn't ironic? You know it, baby.
I can probably look an MLS or USL executive dead in the eye and say that entering the Open Cup a round or two earlier allows their teams to evangelize their teams and leagues to smaller, out of the way fans all I like. Those teams will still have to either travel to facilities that are almost certainly inadequate, or pay the freight for the little team to come play in big, beautiful, empty venues. Telling the USSF to put more money and promotion into the tournament are just restating the problem. Of course every NYCFC fan is now an Open Cup superfan, but that doesn't make New York media any less crowded or cheaper to buy time in. Ideally the Yankees could throw in a little message about their light blue roommates being the bad guys in a Cinderella story - what Yankee fan couldn't get behind that? But that would cost the Yankees a considerable amount of money they could use on paid advertisements, or, God help them, broadcasting baseball games.
It isn't just evil empires who have this problem. You're now running the Real Salt Lake family of teams, congratulations. You have fifteen seconds of airtime. You can plug the Monarchs. You can plug the Royals. You can get fans psyched for the Open Cup game against a drinking club team founded by monarchist refugees of some remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Or you can read an ad, paid for with American currency, some of which will help pay your salary. Or which will help buy a players to beat those clods in California, Colorado, Texas and Cascadia.
I don't know how to solve these problems, short of being granted dictatorial powers over the government of the United States - and while I'm flattered you would think of me, I don't think I'm right for the job. What we can do, as fans, is keep supporting things like the Open Cup and the NWSL, and lead by example.
That's what happened in 2001 with MLS. Lamar Hunt believed in soccer, of course. But he also believed there would some day be enough of us jerks willing to spend money on the stuff in order to justify keeping the lights turned on. I think we've fulfilled that dream.