Questions for NWSL Year 4: Should fans worry about the rich club-poor club divide?

So the league is definitely concerned not just with keeping budgets manageable but also making sure no team can run away with a stacked roster. Of course, the salary cap hasn’t prevented some teams from signing top internationals, like the Seattle Reign pulling in Scotland’s Kim Little or, most recently, Manon Melis from the Netherlands. Even with a maximum salary per player of $37,800, NWSL is an attractive and competitive league, and an international who does well enough could find it a boost to their profile.

The flipside of the salary cap is that it artificially depresses the wages of players whose true value may be far beyond the league’s means. Without US Soccer paying the wages of allocated players, many top Americans would no doubt be seeking paychecks in Europe. Instead, national team players tend to get paid anywhere in the mid-five figures to low-six figures – but even 50 grand a year makes the average NWSL salary look like a struggle.

Teams with more money to burn and a hankering to stir interest by bringing in big names could lobby the league and US Soccer to increase that salary cap or institute a designated player rule. Or they might want increased roster sizes, increased minimum standards for travel, more international slots, revised stadium standards, and other development issues the league has so far had to keep in slowly-but-surely mode.

At the moment, those richer teams are outnumbered, but with MLS commissioner Don Garber on the record saying he’d “like to see every MLS team own a women’s team at some point,” it’s possible one day the league could be majority-MLS owned.” What happens when the majority of team owners want the league to go in a certain direction? Do smaller teams get pushed out? Replaced? Supplemented by other teams as a condition of changing the status quo?

Right now, allowing richer teams to ask for a standard that smaller teams can’t meet would be shortsightedly foolish, and it would probably not play very well in the media. It could also signal the loss of independence that some fans fear. At that point, the NWSL would no longer be a league of its own (as much as it is its own league while mostly operated by US Soccer) but an arm of MLS.

NWSL QUESTIONS: 3. How far can the USSF partnership go?

There’s also the fear that MLS ownership would cut its women’s teams should times get tough, because in a financial pinch, the women’s side is usually the first to go. Hopefully any MLS buy-in comes with financial due diligence and conditions that assure the security of a women’s team for at least a period of years; on the MLS side, surely they of all organizations are aware just how long it takes to get a return on an investment. Hopefully they won’t cut and run if things get bleak.

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