You guys, I am so bored.
In Red Stars country, Chicago has gone from a bye week, to a canceled match weekend (hellooo Sky Blue), to another bye week, and the HTIOT Red Stars Desk is slowly losing our collective grip on reality. [Editor’s note: we’ve resorted to making Drake Memes. It’s pretty bad. -JBG]
Not that there hasn’t been soccer being played elsewhere, just decidedly far from home. Australia, Brazil, Japan, and the USWNT have been participating in the Tournament of Nations, which has been fine so far (with the finale of the event at Toyota Park tomorrow night, which will be a nice, friendly, time). Meanwhile, the North Carolina Courage took their non-USWNT talents to South Beach to play in the inaugural ICC Women’s Tournament, defeating PSG and then Lyon (both currently in pre-season) to walk away with the gold medal.
That particular victory opened up a certain amount of very serious hand-wringing about the NWSL’s place in the larger WoSo club landscape, but to me it also brought up a basic question of why we hadn’t been doing something like this a long time ago.
It’s time for an NWSL All-Star Game. Think of it as counter-programming. With these midseason breaks becoming an annual reality in the already-short NWSL season, it keeps making more and more sense to have a big, dumb, fun event right here in the middle.
And since one of the main criticisms of the MLS All-Star Game - that it pulls players away from their clubs during a critical stretch that runs to the playoffs - happens every year in the NWSL anyway, so why not have some fun with it? And why not a game exclusively benefitting the league itself, as opposed to outsourcing that sort of growth to a group like Relevent Sports?
It would also allow for some breathing room in the collective anxiety that goes into the hosting of the only current major events in the NWSL: the post-season. While giving the final to certain cities within the league opens up the possibility of a pretty unfair championship matchup, rewarding cities with an All-Star game gives them the ability to show off without actual consequences in competitive play. The NWSL gets an established-site event, and the post-season can play out naturally.
In practice, the event could go with a few different options: either include USWNT regulars in the event, and turn it into a regional contest (with maybe some gerrymandering of the geography in early years to make it work), or take a page from MLS’s book and have a contest against a European power in pre-season. Teams like PSG and Lyon are clearly willing to travel to expand their reach to American fans, and it would provide interesting looks at how different players match up.
If the NWSL went with that format, however, I’d include the caveat that it be non-USWNT players only. The way US Soccer schedules their summer camps in the middle of the season would probably dictate that format anyway, but there are reasons why that approach might be good for the league. It would render the event USSF tamper-proof, to a certain extent, and allow the NWSL to dictate the scheduling, voting rules, etc.
It’d also give a larger platform, and incentive, to non-national team players who for whatever reason are outside the USWNT bubble, but are having great seasons. It could stand as a basic difference and standing point for the league: called into midseason USWNT camp? You don’t get to be an All-Star. Some of these easy, basic distinctions are going to be imperative as the league continues to grow, and if league-players are going to find value in this career past their mid-twenties.
But while the MLS format might be one that makes sense in the short term due to simple logistics, a better example for what an All-Star game can bring to a community comes from a league like the WNBA (and the WPS before it). Two team captains, an All-Star draft, skill competitions, and one final matchup that lets players loosen up a little bit and compete against one another while getting to show off both their personalities and the ability that got them to this level in the first place.
In general, the energy surrounding the NWSL can sometimes tend towards the over-serious, simply as a natural side-effect of the tenuous nature of its survival. But we’re at the point where the hope for long-term growth is a real, active part of every season. So if we’re going to be here for a while, why not enjoy it? Show me some All-Stars.