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Balancing crisis and professional duty: Inside the NWSL’s pivotal week

(Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

NWSL games resumed last week after the league paused to reckon with the bombshell report in which former players accused then-North Carolina coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse. After taking a few days to reflect on Mana Shim’s and Sinead Farrelly’s stories of abuse and the power structures that enabled it, players have again found themselves in the thick of both collective organizing and an intense slate of games that will determine the course of the 2021 season.

The brief respite gave players time to both process the developments that have shaken the league and organize. But with the regular season winding down and four of six playoff spots still in question, they’ve been thrown back into the tail end of a grueling season that has come with its own twists and turns.

While some teams were able to at least create momentum through results, it was also clear that the balance of taking care of business both on and off the field is coming with a toll. Players are dealing with an existential crisis that strikes at the very core of the NWSL’s existence. They’re also trying to maintain an elite level of day-to-day work that will allow them to peak when the postseason arrives. 

“We talked to some of the girls in Kansas City last night, and we’re like, let’s just assume no one’s doing well,” Portland Thorns defender Emily Menges said on Sunday. “It’s just a very emotional week, it’s a very tough week. A lot of things are happening. I think that’s one of the hardest things, too, is there’s still a lot more to come.”

In between the phone calls that led to unified messaging before every match, players have been training, traveling and preparing for games in a year where the table is as tight as it’s ever been.

The NWSL took the necessary step of rescheduling the suspended games from the first weekend of October. Now, the games that could determine the success of a team’s season will be played on short rest, with extra cross-country travel for some clubs.

“It’s something that you just kind of have to internalize and meditate on a little bit, and just compartmentalize and keep moving forward,” Chicago Red Stars defender Tierna Davidson said after her team’s loss to OL Reign on Sunday. “This is a very difficult time, but I feel like most of the players are willing to accept the burden in order to make sure that we can make this league better for players that come after us.”

The balance of emotionally processing the recent events and executing on the field is draining, but players are also aware that games provide them with a valuable platform.

The team representatives of the NWSL Players Association have been gathering almost every day, dispersing only when players have to focus on games. That amount of work has resulted in a powerful statement from every team, with players locking arms in the center circle during the sixth minute of games. A number of outside clubs, including those in the Women’s Super League in England, have matched the gesture and stood in solidarity with their NWSL counterparts against systemic abuse.

The games themselves have also provided a welcome distraction for players who are trying to find joy in the little moments.

“When I was hyping the team up, I told them that … my greatest hope for them today was that they played like they were kids again,” Meghan Klingenberg said after Portland’s midweek game against Houston. “And to remember what it felt like when you were on the schoolyard or in the streets or in your backyard, and play with that type of passion and joy. And I think that even if the result didn’t come out the way that we want it, I could still feel that joy from a lot of players”

The crowded upcoming schedule provides more opportunities for players to have their voices heard, but with only four points separating fourth and eighth in the table, these games will also serve as a de-facto play-in series for the postseason. Only the top six teams make the playoffs. So far, two teams have clinched: Portland and OL Reign, and two teams have been eliminated: Kansas City and Louisville.

The Houston Dash launched themselves into third place after two big wins against the Thorns on Wednesday and the Courage on Sunday. On the other end, the Orlando Pride and the Chicago Red Stars slipped out of the playoff spots they’d been holding onto for a number of weeks. Orlando and Chicago will meet again Wednesday to determine an essential three-point swing and provide clarity as to where each team will land at the end of the season.

It’s almost a disservice to the concept of a playoff race to call this year’s NWSL season ‘close’; rather than sprinting neck-and-neck, teams have struggled to find a foothold as they climb and re-climb the table. A team’s form has become essential to their ability to see the season out, with a responsibility falling to players not to let off-the-field field turmoil affect on-field results.

The Washington Spirit have been a lightning rod for that sort of off-field chaos this season. The club fired head coach Richie Burke in August in response to allegations of verbal and emotional abuse. In the months since then, the Spirit’s players and fans have called on co-owner Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the team. On the field, they suffered two 3-0 forfeit defeats in the span of a few weeks after failing to follow COVID-19 protocols. But now, they haven’t lost a game that has actually kicked off since the beginning of August, with no losses under interim head coach Kris Ward.

At the top of the table, the Portland Thorns, first to clinch a playoff berth on Sunday, now haven’t won a game in their last three matches. While their position as Shield contenders hasn’t been relinquished just yet, they have a matchup against OL Reign on Wednesday that will likely determine who is going to take the NWSL’s top spot going into the postseason.

The Houston Dash and Gotham FC, who have each had their share of ups and downs as the season has progressed, both appear to be getting hot just in time to make a postseason run.

All of these narratives would be exciting in a normal year for the league, given the parity between teams (a strength of the league) almost collapsing in on itself. And yet, while players are giving their all to make sure their seasons end the way they’ve pictured them, they’re battling the mental and emotional exhaustion of a season which has seen four coaches fired (and a commissioner resign) over the mistreatment of players.

“Ultimately, we’re committed to making this league what it needs to be. It’s going to take some work and we’re committed to it, and we’re asking the league to join us in our efforts,” Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said on Saturday.

“But yeah, it’s exhausting. I would love to get back to being a soccer player first and foremost. It’s an around-the-clock job right now, but we’re not going to stop until we get some change.”

As Menges put it, the shift back toward soccer will take time and will probably have its own detours along the way, but that doesn’t render the on-field results unimportant.

“It’s not an overnight shift,” she said Sunday. “So it’s definitely OK to keep asking questions about it. But yeah, we can talk about soccer as well.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.