The expansion of the National Women's Soccer League began with the league's sophomore season in 2014, when the league expanded to a ninth team in Houston, and is an ongoing process that currently has seen two expansions and one relocation, with another expansion set for 2021. The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) was established as the top level of professional women's soccer in the United States in 2013 in the wake of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA, 2001–2003) and Women's Professional Soccer (WPS, 2009–2011). The league has seen two teams fold, one relocate to a distant city, and one relocate to a secondary city within its existing market area. The 2016 champions Western New York Flash sold their NWSL franchise rights to North Carolina FC the following offseason, with the new owners relocating the NWSL side as the North Carolina Courage. During the next offseason, two-time champions FC Kansas City were sold back to the league and folded, followed immediately by the sale of a franchise slot to Real Salt Lake, and the Boston Breakers folded.
As of October 2019, the NWSL consists of nine teams with nine separate ownership groups, with a tenth team and ownership group now confirmed to be joining in 2021. In 2015, former commissioner Jeff Plush expressed plans to expand to 14 by the year 2020. In early 2019, President (and former Managing Director) Amanda Duffy alluded that the league would rather take its time and focus on adding more quality teams:
“We’re really concentrating on the quality of the ownership, the quality of the market, the quality of existing facilities – both the match venue, training facilities — staff, infrastructure and the support in that market for soccer and women’s soccer, in particular. So, the past year, we’ve been really trying to refine that process and refine what it is that we’re looking for and what is the pace that we want to grow as a league? Because we’re a strong league. We were strong at 10, we’re strong at nine.
“If we all of sudden next year end up at 16 teams, how does that impact the quality of our competition and is that a pace that is sustainable and that we can still continue to operate with on a broader scale? Our efforts are very focused and specific to certain areas that we want to be strong for any team that’s does come into the league that’s going to help propel us at the top and help to elevate the league."
Many interested ownership groups are associated with existing men's soccer teams, often from Major League Soccer. Five current NWSL ownership groups also run men's teams: original franchise the Portland Thorns FC (Portland Timbers), relocated original franchise North Carolina Courage (North Carolina FC), and the first three outright expansion teams the Houston Dash (Houston Dynamo), Orlando Pride (Orlando City SC), Utah Royals FC (Real Salt Lake). A confirmed future team in Louisville will also share ownership with a men's team (Louisville City FC). Another NWSL ownership group, that of original franchise Reign FC, includes the principal owner of Seattle Sounders FC. Original franchise FC Kansas City was initially owned by the same group running the Missouri Comets, but was sold to new ownership in January 2017 before folding in November later that year.
2013: Formation and original eight teams
When the NWSL was first announced on November 21, 2012, by US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, the number and location of the original teams was the only finalized detail (the name and logo of the league was not yet confirmed, for example). Gulati announced that the league would have teams in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Western New York, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Four of the teams - the Western New York Flash, Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC (in New Jersey) - moved to the new first-division NWSL from the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer, while the other four teams were new franchises, though technically the Washington Spirit were a rebrand of the D.C. United Women. Two of the new teams had an established tie to a men's professional soccer team; Portland Thorns FC was affiliated with and owned by the same ownership group as Portland's MLS team, the Portland Timbers and FC Kansas City was affiliated with and owned by the same group running the Missouri Comets indoor soccer team.
Original expansion prospects
The eight teams chosen for the first season came from a pool of twelve interested ownership groups. Soon after launch, the league reportedly planned to expand to ten teams for 2014. Potential candidates included groups not accepted as part of the original eight; groups from the Los Angeles area and from Hartford, Connecticut were confirmed failed bids, as was one from the Seattle Sounders Women. After the 2014 NWSL season, none of these four ownership groups were still in the expansion picture.
There was speculation that the Vancouver Whitecaps Women could be logical candidates especially given the WWC 2015 in Canada; however, the Whitecaps cancelled their women's program (except for one U-18 academy team) in December 2012.
An ownership group, previously attempting to join Women's Professional Soccer for the 2012 season, had existed in Hartford, Connecticut for a year at the time of the announcement, and had been attempting to join the initial list of teams for the NWSL. The team was intended to be named the 'Connecticut Courage', a name still under consideration. Former General Manager of the WPS side Philadelphia Independence, Terry Foley, had accepted a position with the expected Connecticut team, whose owners have not been announced publicly.
The original Los Angeles bid for an NWSL was a joint effort from the LA Strikers and Pali Blues, two of the strongest W-League teams - the LA Strikers had a working agreement with MLS side Chivas USA, and the Pali Blues were one of the winningest W-League team ever with (then) two titles and four playoff appearances in five seasons, having already included many future WPS, USWNT, and NWSL talent. While being a merger of two strong, already-semi-pro teams in the second-largest US market, the bid was declined reportedly for geographical concerns.
Pali Blues won the 2013 W-League championship, then officially merged with LA Strikers and won the 2014 title as well. However, after the 2014 season, the LA Strikers' MLS partner Chivas USA folded, and the Pali Blues ownership folded the W-League team shortly after to focus on the USL Pro side instead.
FC Indiana is one of the strongest WPSL sides, and had competed in WPSL Elite along with eventual NWSL sides Boston, Chicago, and Western New York. While there was no official confirmation, the team's website suggested that they were one of the twelve original NWSL bids.
FC Indiana moved from WPSL to United Women's Soccer in 2016, for that league's sophomore season.
2014: First Expansion – Houston Dash
During the inaugural season, there was confirmed interest from the WPSL side Houston Aces. However, the league announced during the 2013 NWSL playoffs in August that there would be no expansion for the league's second season.
During the 2013-2014 offseason, the Houston Dynamo added their name to the list of MLS teams interested in fielding a women's side, stating that they were "exploring the opportunity" of starting an NWSL side in 2014 or 2015, and in December 2013 they announced that the Houston Dash would join the NWSL in 2014. By early December, the NWSL approved the Dynamo-run Dash for expansion in 2014 despite their earlier statement that there would be no expansion for the league's second season.
2016: Second Expansion – Orlando Pride
After the media boom of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, MLS side Orlando City SC entered the expansion picture. A fan blog reported the owners openly discussing their inability to comment on the issue, essentially giving an answer "without an answer being given", which OCSC followed the next day with a press release supporting women's soccer and their Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) side while stopping short of stating positively or negatively about potential NWSL expansion.
On October 20, 2015, the NWSL announced that Orlando would host the 10th NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, due to start the 2016 season. At that announcement, the Pride announced that they had hired former U.S. National Women's Team coach Tom Sermanni.
Days later, the Pride traded with the Portland Thorns for U.S. national team forward Alex Morgan — Orlando City SC had previously acquired Morgan's husband, Servando Carrasco — and Canadian national team midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, in exchange for rights to U.S. national team defender Meghan Klingenberg (via the Houston Dash and Seattle Reign FC), the first overall pick in the 2016 NWSL College Draft, an international roster spot for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and the rights to U.S. national team midfielder Lindsey Horan. This was the most notable trade in NWSL history at the time it was made, and it was speculated widely that the acquisition of Morgan was a condition for joining the league, or at least for doing so in 2016 rather than in a future season.
2017: First Relocation – Western New York Flash to Cary, North Carolina
North Carolina FC, then playing in the NASL and now in the USL Championship (USLC), also expressed interest in establishing a NWSL side, with club owner Steve Malik mentioning talks between the league and the then Carolina Railhawks in May 2016. In December of that same year, the Railhawks organization prematurely released press announcements of their rebranding as well as intentions to establish expansion franchises in MLS and the NWSL. A few days later on December 6, the club officially announced its pursuit of an NWSL team, with a goal of establishing one within the next six months.
Instead of creating an expansion franchise in the NWSL, North Carolina FC acquired the rights to the 2016 NWSL championship-winning Western New York Flash. While the Flash's 2016 attendance was their second-best in their NWSL history and was fifth out of the ten 2016 NWSL teams, the Flash had much lower attendances their previous two seasons and were not close to filling Rochester Rhinos Stadium. Then-owner Joe Sahlen's familial connections to the team had eroded quickly over the previous year, and the Flash also had a public debacle in 2016 when they hosted the Seattle Reign FC in a baseball stadium on a pitch much narrower than FIFA guidelines, drawing negative national media attention to the league. The league subsequently fined the Flash, with Joe Sahlen and team president Alex Sahlen apologizing for the incident's damage to the league's reputation.
The Flash and North Carolina FC announced the sale and relocation on January 9, 2017, fewer than three months after the Flash won the 2016 NWSL championship, with the relocated team to be renamed the North Carolina Courage. In their official statement, the Sahlen family claimed that "the Western New York market is not the right fit for the NWSL and the future direction of the league". Malik had previously purchased the trademark for the original Carolina Courage franchise from the defunct Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), and the lioness on the WUSA team's crest is featured on the NWSL team's crest.
2017: First Folding and Third Expansion – FC Kansas City effectively to Salt Lake City, Utah
At a press conference in September 2014, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen mentioned RSL expanding the club to include professional minor league and women's teams, in addition to the pro major league and amateur women's teams they already had. RSL's interest in the NWSL was officially confirmed in November, with the NWSL team intended to share a new stadium (and likely a name) with the USL Pro side Real Monarchs SLC. While the stadium deal initially looked promising, it fell through at the original location of the Utah State Fairpark in early February 2015. The team chose a new stadium location in West Valley City by early March, with meetings between RSL and the NWSL moving forward. In 2016, the Real Salt Lake Women joined United Women's Soccer in 2016 for its inaugural season. While the organization still expressed interest in a future move up to NWSL, such a move no longer appeared to be imminent; in contrast, the USL Monarchs started play in 2015 with the team's training facility (which includes a 5,000-seat stadium) opening in August 2017, still with no overt interest from RSL or NWSL in pursuing a Utah franchise at the time.
Meanwhile, the original owners of NWSL two-time champions FC Kansas City got mired in an e-mail scandal during the 2016-2017 offseason, ultimately causing the ownership group to split up and the team to be sold to Minnesota-based businessman Elam Baer. However, Baer and his management team were largely absent, causing FCKC's attendance figures to dissolve, and at times the team did not meet league minimum requirements for roster payroll or away-game traveling contingents. This led to extensive behind-the-scenes discussions of selling FCKC once again, which led to five-year head coach Vlatko Andonovski finally leaving the club in October.
After previous talks with another Minnesota-based group and with Sporting KC both fell through, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen rapidly changed positions from not wanting to "promote" the RSL Women from UWS to agreeing to purchase franchise rights for a new NWSL team over the course of just 15 days, heavily influenced by discussions with Timbers/Thorns owner Merrit Paulson. At the time of the announcement, there were no indications it was a direct relocation of FC Kansas City; later that week, it was officially announced that Baer had sold FCKC back to NWSL to fold the team, at which point franchise rights went to Hansen, with the league ultimately transferring all player contracts to Salt Lake City as well. Thus, while the team shuffle may appear to be a relocation, there was no direct sale of the team from Baer to Hansen. The new Salt Lake NWSL team, which did not replace the existing RSL Women, ultimately played in Rio Tinto Stadium. On December 1, the new name for the Salt Lake NWSL team was announced as Utah Royals FC.
2018: Second Folding – Boston Breakers disbanded
Prior to the sudden disbanding of FC Kansas City, it was the Boston Breakers that were in discussion for Real Salt Lake to take over. The team never had a truly viable long-term home stadium and only averaged over 3,000 fans for a full season once in their recent history. The collapse of the FCKC situation was thankfully coincident with the appearance of potential investors for Boston, though the investors were uncertain to be ready in time for the 2018 season. On Jan 28, the NWSL announced the Boston Breakers would fold, and players distributed to the other franchises through a dispersal draft on Jan 30th.
2021: Fourth Expansion – Proof Louisville FC
In March 2019, discussion about Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky, set to open in 2020 as the new home of USLC side Louisville City FC, included discussion of a potential NWSL team, eyeing 2021 or 2022 — notable due to the existing connection between NWSL president Amanda Duffy and the USLC side, as she had held three top-level positions within the club during her tenure there. By August, reports began coming out that Louisville was very close to being approved as the 10th team for the 2020 NWSL season. However, this was later pushed back to 2021 because of Louisville City's concerns about its transition to the new stadium, with the 2020 expansion planned to go to Sacramento instead. The Louisville franchise was officially announced on October 22, 2019 and unveiled as Proof Louisville FC on November 12 of that year. This marked the first time an NWSL franchise was announced more than five months in advance of its first game.
Future expansion prospects
In early 2015, six groups had expressed interest in gaining entry into NWSL, four of which were known - Real Salt Lake, the Indy Eleven, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and an independent group from Atlanta. The other two groups were rumored to be western MLS clubs. NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush stated that any potential expansion for 2016 would have to be announced soon after the April owners' meeting; the Atlanta group was the only publicly announced group interested in 2016 expansion, and when no announcement came from NWSL by May, it seemed 2016 expansion was dead. However, the success of the United States women's national soccer team in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup renewed expansion talks, with the number of interested groups ballooning to twelve - more than the current size of the league. The first result of this post-WWC boom was Orlando's expansion into the league for the 2016 season.
Several months after the NWSL announced the Orlando Pride's addition to the league, commissioner Jeff Plush also announced that the NWSL planned to expand by an additional four teams, to a total of 14 teams by 2020. At the time, Plush suggested that the league was in varying stages of talks with a dozen different potential expansion groups, many of whom were from MLS organizations. MLS commissioner Don Garber stated in April 2016 that half of MLS teams could be running NWSL teams in the near future.
In August 2019, Merritt Paulson, principal owner of Portland Thorns FC in the NWSL and the Portland Timbers in MLS and also a major player in the NWSL's expansion committee, held an open forum with supporters in which he stated there were two new teams committed to the NWSL for 2020, and a third aiming for a 2021 launch. He added that the teams in line for 2020 were in the Southeast and West Coast, and that the potential 2021 entry would be a “really significant, big-name addition” to the NWSL. Paulson then went further, saying "One of them’s an MLS team, one of them will be an MLS team, one of them’s a USL team. That’s probably more than I should have said." An unnamed source told the women's soccer news outlet The Equalizer that the three markets Paulson was alluding to were, in order of mention, Atlanta (MLS side Atlanta United FC), Sacramento (USL Championship side Sacramento Republic FC, whose ownership group ultimately received a future MLS team in October 2019), and Louisville (USL Championship side Louisville City FC). Louisville was the first of these markets to be officially announced as a new NWSL entry.
After MLS side Chivas USA folded, the league awarded a new team to the Los Angeles area in 2014, whose ownership group included USWNT legend Mia Hamm, her husband Nomar Garciaparra, and Lakers legend and Sparks co-owner Magic Johnson. This caused some criticism of Hamm for investing in men's soccer before women's soccer, but mostly fueled speculation that the new MLS side would likely invest in an NWSL team as well, which Hamm commented "just makes sense".
When asked about the status of an LAFC NWSL team following the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, Hamm stated that the LAFC ownership group was focused on getting several years of experience with MLS revenues and expenses before committing to an NWSL team.
USL side Sacramento Republic FC has also commented on Twitter several times in 2015 and 2016 that adding an NWSL side is part of their long-term plan. Kevin Nagle, a part of the Republic's ownership group, further confirmed their interest in a women's team in November 2016 after the NWSL's commissioner at the time, Jeff Plush, identified California as a priority market for the league.. In 2019, it was reported Sacramento was in advanced discussions to join the NWSL in 2020, with ownership group being led by Sacramento Republic owner Kevin Nagle.
MLS expansion club FC Cincinnati has expressed interest in gaining a NWSL club once their new West End Stadium opens in 2021. USWNT and NWSL star Rose Lavelle, a Cincinnati native, has spoken several times about her desire to play professional soccer in Cincinnati.
Status unknown or unlikely
An investment group out of Atlanta went public in early January 2015 with its intent to bring an NWSL team to the city that has already seen two incarnations of professional women's soccer in WUSA and WPS - with a website already live and a stadium already decided. While there was initial fan interest, many objected to the initially proposed name of the Atlanta Vibe, prompting the investment group to open a poll for the name, as was a survey for team colors. The group eventually chose red and black for the team's identity, while the stadium was changed from Henderson Field at Grady Stadium to Silverbacks Park, but there had been no sign of any talk between the group and NWSL at that point, despite the fact that the group has been working toward NWSL expansion for over 18 months. After the early-summer NWSL owners' meeting, it appeared that Atlanta was rejected for 2016 and would have to continue trying for future expansion.
In December 2016, rumors surfaced of another group reportedly trying to bring both NASL and NWSL teams to Atlanta. The proposed team would play at a to-be-constructed facility in DeKalb County. The group revealed itself in February 2017 as First Team SC and announced their proposal to play in the just-announced Atlanta Sports City complex in DeKalb County. This included a scheduled announcement for April 2017, but First Team SC delayed that announcement indefinitely, citing "the landscape of American soccer changing dramatically." Fans reported receiving surveys via e-mail concerning the ongoing efforts in December 2017 with the aim of a 2019 launch.
In July 2016, FC Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu stated in an interview on Barça TV that he wanted to "create a team that can take part in the National Women's Soccer League". The Spanish club was reportedly interested in establishing a NWSL side in New York, Los Angeles, or the San Francisco Bay area. Barcelona's board approved plans to pursue an NWSL expansion team in May 2017, with a goal of launching the team as early as 2018 but no further details released to the public. The expansion effort was ultimately pushed back to a 2019 launch date, with Barça zeroing in on Santa Monica, California as a potential location.
Soon after, it was reported that FCB and LAFC were in talks to work together at bringing NWSL to Los Angeles. After years of talks, though, the prospect of a joint expansion effort fell through, with sources from NWSL stating that FCB's desire to keep their branding was a major reason for any expansion effort including FCB to be unlikely. Concerns about requests for changing NWSL's internaonal player rules were also said to be a sticking point.
On April 16, 2013, just after the NWSL's inaugural season began, The Equalizer interviewed NWSL Commissioner Cheryl Bailey about numerous topics, including expansion. She responded to a question focused on Toronto and Vancouver by noting that there was considerable interest in longer-term expansion, but also interest in getting in early, ostensibly for the 2014 season, and said that the NWSL would start looking at expansion potential in Canada toward the later portion of the 2013 season.
In July 2014, Peter Montopoli, general secretary of the Canadian Soccer Association, suggested that the upcoming 2015 Women's World Cup offered an opportunity for the NWSL to expand to Canadian cities, with speculation that the expansion could even occur in time for the 2015 NWSL season. However, in late August 2014, Bailey said there would be no expansion for 2015, citing the logistical challenges of scheduling the league around the Women's World Cup that might put off expansion until at least 2016.
With high fan interest in Canada during and following the World Cup, the Whitecaps reiterated that there was "nothing imminent" in terms of the Whitecaps organization joining NWSL, making it highly unlikely that they were one of the then-dozen groups in discussion with the league concerning expansion. At an end-of-season meeting with three Whitecaps supporters groups in 2016, the Whitecaps inquired about the prospect of a Vancouver NWSL team. Meanwhile, officials and spokespersons for Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact reiterated that their clubs had no intention of joining the NWSL.
FC Dallas reinstated its WPSL team FC Dallas Women for the 2016 WPSL season, after having only fielded an ECNL side following a previous two-year stint in WPSL. While the team's coach Ben Waldrum suggested that an NWSL franchise should be a goal, he noted in June 2016 that there had been no directive from Hunt Sports Group to pursue one.
Indy Eleven, which moved from the NASL to the USL after the 2017 season and was previously led by ex-Chicago-Red-Stars GM Peter Wilt, expressed interest in an NWSL side in 2015, contingent on them getting a new soccer-specific stadium built for the Eleven with a target date in 2017. The Eleven's inability to secure the stadium plan delayed Indianapolis NWSL expansion until 2018 at the earliest. In 2019, the Indiana General Assembly passed a stadium bill for the Eleven, for the newly proposed Eleven Park. The developers have expressed interest in a potential Women's soccer team to play at the stadium.
Before NWSL bought FC Kansas City back from Minnesota-based Elam Baer, a second Minnesota-based group was in discussion for purchasing the team, though discussion about relocation was unsure. After the sale and disbanding of the team, Baer stated that he was interested in eventually rejoining NWSL ownership to bring a team directly to Minnesota as he believed the league to be "a good long-term investment".
New York City
City Football Group has expressed interest in starting a team in NWSL to mirror their MLS side New York City FC after having created very successful sister teams to Manchester City and Melbourne City. Current NWSL side Sky Blue FC had previously been in talk with both NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls for a partnership, but the nothing came of the 2014 talks with NYCFC and Sky Blue rejected the 2013 proposed deal from NYRB.
In a 2019 interview with a writer for The Equalizer, Jean-Michel Aulas, president of Ligue 1 power Olympique Lyonnais, whose women's section has been Europe's most dominant women's side in recent years, expressed an interest in an NWSL franchise in the Miami area, where he has business interests. The writer apparently dismissed Aulas' comments as public posturing, saying "that seems to be more about publicity than sincere investment in the league." However, later that year, French sports magazine L'Équipe reported that Lyon was in advanced talks to purchase one of two possible existing NWSL teams.
Under new ownership in 2014 after having recently gone through bankruptcy, USL Pro side Pittsburgh Riverhounds also expressed interest in NWSL as an expansion on top of the youth structure already in place. As of 2015, the Riverhounds planned to expand their stadium capacity by 50%, and their target for an NWSL team was 2018.
Conflicting reports in 2014 and 2015 linked MLS's San Jose Earthquakes to a potential NWSL team. However, Earthquakes president Dave Kaval stated in May 2016 that the Earthquakes were interested in bringing an NWSL side to San Jose but were waiting for the approval and completion of a training and academy complex in order to be capable of hosting a NWSL or USL side. Kaval reiterated his previous comments on the NWSL in November, and added with regard to the training facility that "We’re in Week 20 in a 60-week process. Next summer they could certify the EIR (environmental impact report)."
Other USL markets
In August 2018, Research Triangle TV station WRAL reported on remarks made by North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik, also owner of the USL's North Carolina FC, to WRAL's sister radio station. He had been asked about rumors that the NWSL and USL were exploring a partnership, and chose to reframe the question to the issue of league expansion:
I just came from the USL meetings. Are there USL clubs that NWSL is talking to? Absolutely. There are some great fits where, if you build a 10,000- to 12,000-seat stadium in an urban area in a top 40 or top 50 market, particularly one that may not have Major League Soccer. If you own that stadium, do you want some dates? Yeah, you want some dates.
The WRAL-TV report speculated that at least five USL markets were potentially viable as NWSL expansion targets for 2020 and beyond. In addition to Louisville, now set for a 2021 NWSL debut, Hartford, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Antonio were identified as possible targets. Amanda Duffy, then NWSL director of operations and now league president, has connections to the management of San Antonio FC, having previously worked under that club's managing director Tim Holt when he was the president of the USL parent organization.
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