12 Oct European critics say NWSL is too fast and physical, but it’s changing (which helps USWNT)
Those who compete in the National Women’s Soccer League consider it the most competitive league in the world. Those outside of it? Their views vary greatly, and they are not always positive.
In England on Tuesday, Manchester United head coach Marc Skinner reflected on a physical 1-1 draw in the Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain by saying, “That was most like an NWSL game I’ve experienced. That was an NWSL opponent.” The implication in his remark wasn’t a compliment.
Skinner, who coached the NWSL’s Orlando Pride from 2019 to 2021, went on to talk about the transitional nature of the NWSL and “how there wasn’t really a love for the build-up of the ball.”
His opinion — and his use of the word “transition” as if it is some kind of slur — is not unique. Critics of the NWSL loathe the fast pace of games in the league and view it as inferior to the possession-based style preferred by the best teams in Europe, with Barcelona being the most extreme example.
Spain‘s triumph at the World Cup this year, and the historic exit of the U.S. women’s national team in the round of 16, likely served as confirmation bias for many as to which style of play is more effective. Spain’s team has deep connections to Barcelona, while 22 of the 23 players on the U.S. roster play in the NWSL.
The premise of that question assumes that the NWSL lacks technical skills and tactical nuance, but if that argument was true in the past, it doesn’t stand up today. Styles of play in the NWSL have evolved — arguably too slowly, granted, but they have advanced — and the league remains home to abundant, world-class talent. Now, those teams can exploit opponents in several ways, transition moments being just one.
“Now, I look at the league and go: ‘Everyone has the ability to break you down with the ball,'” said OL Reign coach Laura Harvey, who has coached in the league for at least part of every regular season since its inception in 2013.
“I just feel like it’s a double-edged sword,” Harvey told ESPN. “And I think the difference between here and leagues around the world, especially in Europe, is a lot of teams in Europe are defensively solid. They do it in a lower part of the field and when they win it, their first thought is to keep it, whereas the first thought here is, when you win it, can you score? To me, that’s so dangerous.”
Harvey’s point about teams increasingly valuing the ball is best illustrated by the evolution in the style of the North Carolina Courage.
The 2018 Courage lost only once in 24 regular-season games, winning the NWSL Shield, the NWSL Championship and the first women’s version of the International Champions Cup by defeating European giant Lyon, 1-0. That era of the Courage, which also won the double in 2019, was defined by relentless high pressure that suffocated teams in their own defensive third and pounced on mistakes, converting on a high number of opportunities generated by the system.
This season, a completely remodeled Courage team leads the NWSL in several statistical categories that demonstrate their desire to keep the ball, and the next closest teams are not even close. Per TruMedia/Stats Perform, North Carolina’s league-leading 40 build-up attacks — sequences of 10-plus passes that end in a shot or a touch in the box — is nearly double that of the next team, the Portland Thorns with 21. Per FBRef, North Carolina leads the NWSL in possession (59.3%), total passes attempted and completed, and progressive distance carried.
North Carolina — a team that is still often associated with a direct brand of soccer — is the most possession-oriented team in the NWSL. The end product is there, too. The approach has the Courage sitting in third place heading into the final weekend of the NWSL regular season, and it has also produced some of the best team goals of the season.
NJ/NY Gotham FC offers further proof of the advancement of tactics in the NWSL. A team that lost 12 consecutive games last season — including five straight by being shut out — is breathing new life under first-year head coach Juan Carlos Amoros, a Spaniard who spent nearly a decade as co-manager at Tottenham in England. Gotham has quickly gone from a disjointed mess to the team that has attempted the second-most passes in the NWSL this season, controlled the second-most possession in games behind the Courage, and sits in fourth place heading into the final weekend.
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Looking at the relatively basic statistic of passes attempted this season, the bottom half of that table features only one team currently in a playoff position, the Washington Spirit, sitting last in total attempts. Teams keeping the ball are, generally, being rewarded.
This matters for reasons beyond the NWSL collectively defending itself in an argument about the quality of the league. The NWSL is not the reason the U.S. women’s national team played so poorly at the 2023 World Cup, but it is the home of almost every player on the U.S. roster, and that means the NWSL must be part of the solution in helping the U.S. women return to the top of the world stage.
International soccer is frequently won in moments of transition, which should (in theory) benefit the American style of play. Transitional moments, however, cannot paper over an inability to solve tactical problems in possession, which is where the U.S. and its players have long struggled. The problem was exacerbated by the improved tactical quality of opponents at the 2023 World Cup.
If the U.S. is going to improve in this area going forward, it will need a new coach (still to be hired) capable of implementing those tactics in the short term. In the long term, U.S. Soccer faces existential questions about a youth system that has largely emphasized results and money over real player development. Somewhere in between lies the NWSL as the day-to-day training environment of senior players in the United States.
England, which made the 2023 World Cup final a year after becoming European champions, featured 20 WSL players on its World Cup roster this summer. A look at the top of the table in England last season shows the value of possession: the top four teams on the table also made up the top four in passes attempted and progressive passing distance, per FBRef. The number of passes attempted and completed by those teams is also roughly comparable to the Courage this year.
The disparity is much greater in Liga F, where Barcelona rules year in and year out with near-perfect seasons, keeping a whopping 70.4% of the ball in the 2022-23 season (compared to Sporting Huelva‘s league-worst 37.2%). Barcelona is setting a certain standard of play, but that does not mean it is replicated throughout the league.
As with most things in the NWSL, there is far less disparity between the top and the bottom. The NWSL collectively needs a healthier balance of fast-paced, transitional play, and more methodical possession, to keep the league in the conversation as the best in the world. More importantly, finding that sets up players for success domestically and internationally and thus makes the NWSL more attractive to the best players in the world.
San Diego Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney says the NWSL is the “fastest” league she has ever been part of as a coach or a player. She and her team have challenged for the NWSL Shield in each of their two seasons by way of a style of play that combines direct play with off-ball manipulation of opponents. It is a style that is not necessarily rooted in ball possession, but it is incisive.
“I do think there’s more possession now in this league than there was even last year,” Stoney said. “I think certain teams are possession-based teams. I think it’s being able to mix your game up in this league, that’s really important. Being able to spring attacks quickly, being able to slow the game down, being able to control momentum.”
As both Stoney and Harvey note, the athleticism of the American game is something to be incorporated into a team’s style of play to optimize its effectiveness. It is not something to be suppressed. Both coaches also pointed to improved defensive schemes in 2023, reversing a trend that saw a downturn in the quality of individual and team defending in recent years. Barring an unprecedented final weekend that changes this, there were fewer total goals scored this season than last.
Direct play does and always will exist in the NWSL — and everywhere else on the planet. The Spirit, for example, have found relative success this season despite ranking last in the league in possession, passes and passing distance, among other categories that illustrate how direct (and prone to fouling opponents) they are. Deploying forward Trinity Rodman into open space and Ashley Hatch poaching in front of goal can make that work.
Portland is the epitome of finding the right blend of styles. The Thorns are perennial contenders and are atop the table once again heading into the final weekend (like last year, when they let the NWSL Shield slip away with a fluky draw at Gotham). Portland can build through a talented midfield anchored by defensive midfielder Sam Coffey, who leads the league in assists, but the Thorns can also strike quickly through 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith and strike partner Morgan Weaver.
Different games require different strategic approaches, an axiom that applies to the NWSL, the UEFA Champions League, or the World Cup. Sometimes, that will look more direct and physical — even for a European heavyweight like Paris Saint-Germain.
When Skinner arrived in Orlando in 2019, he infamously said he wanted to “create art” with how his team played. He was quickly humbled. Orlando finished in last place that year with 16 points and just four victories from 24 games while conceding a league-record 53 goals.
Two years later, Skinner admitted that his comment was “misplaced at the time.” He had learned a familiar lesson about needing to adapt to the NWSL: possession-based teams can find success, but not in the absence of owning those moments of transition. For a brief spell early in the 2021 season, an Orlando team that had found the right balance of styles sat atop the NWSL table.
The “art” needed to succeed in the NWSL is more like an evolving science. There is notable progress in the league’s quality of play, but there are many breakthroughs still to be made.