Jill Ellis subscribes to the theory that you can’t get too much of a good thing. For her, then, the expansion of the National Women’s Soccer League into Southern California might be overdue, but it’s not being overdone.
“You want to have that feel that this is a national league. So I certainly think representation in Southern California was a positive step, a needed step,” said Ellis, who coached the women’s national team to back-to-back World Cup titles. “It’s a great statement.”
Ellis is a bit biased since she’s president of the San Diego Wave, which will join Angel City in the NWSL this season, swelling the league to 12 teams. The Wave and Angel City make their debuts Saturday, facing off against each other in pool play of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Cal State Fullerton.
Ellis’ bias, however, is well-founded. During her six years as the U.S. women’s coach, Ellis spoke repeatedly about the importance of a competitive league for building the national team. Now that she’s on the inside, that view hasn’t changed.
“It was absolutely critical that we had an environment where they could continue to keep sharp, hone their skills,” said Ellis, the winningest coach in U.S. soccer history. “I don’t think a team wins a world championship without a strong domestic league. It’s actually the foundation for national teams to be able to compete.”
And the NWSL, which is heading into its 10th season, is both stronger and more fragile than it has ever been.
Stronger because expansion has increased the league to a dozen teams, added vibrant markets in San Diego and Southern California and brought in wealthy celebrity owners. Billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, who spurned MLS for the women’s league, is the money behind the Wave, and Angel City’s sprawling group of investors is a who’s who of sports and entertainment figures including Natalie Portman, Alexis Ohanian, Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Eva Longoria and Christina Aguilera.
The league also has a broadcast deal with CBS, sponsorship agreements with Fortune 500 companies including Delta, Mastercard Verizon and Nationwide, its first collective bargaining agreement with its players union and a new commissioner in Jessica Berman, who was announced last week to replace interim CEO Marla Messing.
But the NWSL is also fragile after being rocked last season by a widespread scandal in which several coaches were alleged to have either engaged in years of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, racism and misogyny, or moved to cover them up. For a time it was uncertain the league would survive. So even though the union and the NWSL, under Messing’s leadership, were able to come together on a labor deal, distrust among the players persists.
Ellis says the current climate offers the league a chance to move forward.
“Certainly last year was a point of reflection and a need for change,” she said. “Our sport needed strong women coming forward and speaking up about player welfare and treatment.
“By bringing this front-center, by finally having these conversations and these discussions, [the] push for standards and investigations, we’re going to make every other league around the world understand we have to hold ourselves to these high standards.”
The change is already apparent. After beginning last season with one woman manager, five of the 12 teams will be led by female coaches this season. Nine teams also have women in charge in the front office.
“More female leadership in the league was important,” Ellis said.
But it’s also important the NWSL regain its leadership on the field as well.
Three previous attempts at establishing a women’s professional soccer league failed before the NWSL, with generous backing from U.S. Soccer, launched in 2013, and quickly became the top league in the world. Now that preeminence is being threatened.
Ellis, however, dismissed many of the rival leagues in Europe as top heavy. In Spain, for example, unbeaten Barcelona (24-0), which has outscored opponents 136-6, recently beat second-place Real Sociedad 9-1. In France, eight of unbeaten Lyon’s first 15 wins have come by four or more goals. That doesn’t happen in the NWSL.
“We are, top to bottom, the most competitive league,” Ellis said.
The San Diego-Angel City rivalry will only add to that.
Although Southern California is home to some of the nation’s top college programs and more than 38,000 competitive youth players, many of them girls, it has had just one season of first-division women’s professional soccer. That came in 2009 when the Los Angeles Sol, playing in Carson, posted the best regular-season record in the WPS, only to lose in the playoffs.
The team folded before the next season and two years later the league followed suit. Now women’s professional soccer is back in this region with two teams.
“The game needs to be here because it has such a stronghold on youth soccer in the country,” said Angel City’s Christen Press, the national team’s second-leading active scorer behind only Alex Morgan, who plays for the Wave. ”So many girls that play soccer in Southern California now get to see the game at the highest level
Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup and Olympic champion, agrees. Foudy, who was born in San Diego but raised in Orange County, played in one of NWSL’s short-lived predecessors and is now a part of Angel City’s ownership group.
“I’ve always felt like we should be having something here,” she said. “And for it to finally be back and be back in this iteration and version is fantastic. Because this one is something special.
“To have that rivalry built-in with that group in San Diego only adds to it. So it was it was definitely worth the wait. But I would rather have seen it five years ago.”