42413_franchadrianna__isi_nwslhcs20130414214 Howard C. Smith/isiphotos.com

The NWSL Finds Itself on the Path to Legitimacy

The NWSL is looking more and more like a professional league every week. Maura Gladys examines how the startup is finding its footing and providing a place for the USWNT to grow.
BY Maura Gladys Posted
April 24, 2013
1:15 PM
In the first few baby step weeks of the NWSL season, each game is a battle for legitimacy. But the marks of a truly good league—exciting atmosphere, quality play thrilling moments—were already on display this weekend in the NWSL.

The Portland Thorns defeated the Seattle Reign 2-1 with a raucous Jeld-Wen stadium as the backdrop in the birth of another Northwest soccer rivalry. We expected high attendance, but the rapid Portland fanbase exceeded those expectations as more than 16,479 came out for the match. Fans stood on their feet and chanted for the majority of the game. Marian Dougherty opened the scoring in the 45th minute, Alex Morgan doubled the lead in the 52nd, and the Thorns held on for the win.

While it was an extension of the already well-established Cascadia rivalry between Seattle and Portland, the match had a unique freshness to it. From Thorns defender Jazmyne Avant singing the national anthem and Karina LeBlanc’s rose-red dyed hair to the presentation of roses to the goal scorers instead of a slice of a log, the match had its own voice and heart. The matchup felt like a logical extension of the Cascadia Cup. The fans embraced the new chapter in the story of soccer in the Northwest.

While one match delivered an electric atmosphere and new traditions, the other NWSL match of the weekend provided a glimpse of the future and an all-too-real reminder that while weekly matches are great, there is the ever-present threat of injury.

The Washington Spirit hosted the New York Flash in in a sold-out home opener at the Maryland SoccerPlex. It was largely a display of two of the United States goalkeepers of the future. Adriana Franch and Ashlyn Harris had terrific games in the 1-1 draw. Franch had three saves, including a great stretching block to push Lori Lindsey’s long-range effort wide, and Harris made several key blocks on the way to racking up four saves.

Harris eventually conceded in the 85th minute when Samantha Kerr’s header snuck in between the goalie and the post, and Franch couldn’t stop a Spirit PK just two minutes later. But Flash head coach Aaran Lines was high on his young netminder. “You saw the future goalkeeper for the U.S. national team,” he said after the match.

Both Harris and Franch have had national team experience in their young careers. Harris earned her first cap and first start in the Algarve Cup against Sweden, where the U.S. drew 1-1, while Franch was named to Tom Sermanni’s roster for the Germany and Netherlands friendlies earlier this month, but did not make an appearance.

The one dark spot on the game came when Abby Wambach hit the turf late after getting smacked in the face with a ball at close range. With time winding down, Flash defender Brittany Taylor turned to clear the ball, but instead, fired right into the path of Wambach’s head, sending the the second-leading scorer in U.S. history to the ground. Wambach finished the game, but afterwards, Lines said she was “not doing too well.”

Wambach went in for tests on Monday and sat out Monday’s training session, but said she expects to be ready for WNY’s home opener on Saturday. Despite her prowess in the air, Wambach has not dealt with concussion in the past, but the scare serves as a reminder, as did Hope Solo’s wrist injury, that consistent games pose the risk of injury.

Every step of the NWSL has been closely monitored in these first few weeks, which is good. But eventually, the league and the media will need to get out from under the “will this work?” narrative, and just step back and let it play out. It’s a fine line between keeping a cautious eye on growth, and getting wrapped up in numbers instead of celebrating the league and enjoying the games. Because at it’s core, the NWSL is a league that is supposed to be enjoyed.

Maura Gladys, a featured ASN columnist, works in production for KICKTV. She also runs the goalkeeping blog All You Need Is Glove.

Post a comment