NWSL boss: 2017 expansion still on the table, California is top target

Jeff Plush, former managing director of the Colorado Rapids and current NWSL commissioner, spoke to FOX Sports about where the league's expansion plans stand. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/MLS via Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are over and the next Women’s World Cup isn’t until 2019, the club game will need to carry women’s soccer for the next three years. For most of the players on the U.S. and Canadian national teams, that means playing in the four-year-old National Women’s Soccer League.

But the 10-team NWSL’s geographic footprint is still modest, and many cities that draw large crowds for USWNT friendlies or have attractive media markets aren’t near NWSL teams. NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush is working on changing that. He said the league is looking at expanding for a third time, but the timing is still up in the air.

“I think 2017 is still on the table, but the window is shrinking,” Plush told FOX Sports on Tuesday. “That window will shut in about October. We launched the Orlando Pride in October of last year and they’ve had a very successful year both as a business and in that they’re in the playoff chase as well.”

“If we could launch with another Orlando-type situation, we would do that. Now, I already have some gray hair but I think my staff got a little gray hair in the process of launching that late — you have to be careful, you wouldn’t want to push it further than that. We have some time still.”

Alex Morgan of the Orlando Pride keeps the ball in play in an NWSL match against the Houston Dash at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on April 23, 2016. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

Plush has previously said repeatedly that his preference would be to have two teams join the NWSL in the same year and maintain the league’s even number of teams. He has also said that his hope is to have 14 teams in the NWSL by 2020. Given that, two teams joining later may seem more likely, but Plush stressed that the quality of the ownership groups and the markets are both more important than a specific timeline.

FS1 will begin airing NWSL games on Sept. 7 on a one-year agreement and although a longer-term television deal has been elusive for the league, Plush said expansion is important to make the NWSL more attractive to national broadcasters.

“To not be in some of the most important and large markets makes it challenging to be considered a national property,” Plush said. “We look at that from an expansion strategy and how it will impact both media opportunities as well as sponsorship opportunities.”

And when it comes to those markets, groups from across the country have expressed some level of interest in joining the NWSL, but Plush identified California as a key target.

“We’ve got to get into California at some point,” Plush said. “We’d like to for lots of reasons — two of the top media markets are out there, but there are also so many young women and girls playing the game that I think that clubs there would have an opportunity for success right away.”

Those media markets that Plush refers to are the regions around Los Angeles and San Francisco — and both areas have clubs that have expressed some interest in the NWSL.

Los Angeles FC, which will join Major League Soccer in 2018 and broke ground on a new $350-million stadium complex on Tuesday, are backed by a high-powered ownership group that includes former player Mia Hamm. The American soccer great has reportedly said she’s been “very vocal about wanting a women’s team to be a part” of LAFC’s future, but she hinted that establishing LAFC’s MLS first-team and academy, which are in the early stages still, have pushed talk of a women’s team to the backburner.

The Sacramento Republic of the United Soccer League, which are currently trying to win an expansion slot in MLS and are finalizing approvals for a new stadium, also have put a women’s team in long-term plans, though establishing an MLS team is the clear top priority.

“We’ve discussed what the road map is,” Kevin Nagle, one of the team’s owners, told FOX Sports back in November. “You have to have a USL team — that is something that’s on the map — as well as a PDL (Premier Development League) team. And to me, it just makes all the sense in the world to have a women’s soccer team be part of that.”

Plush also identified the south as another possible geographic growth area for the league.

“Potentially back down into the southeast because Orlando is pretty far south of Washington D.C. by themselves,” he said. “So, there are ways to create more regional rivalries — those types of things have value. But you just want owners who are committed and passionate and add value and are in it for the long-term.”

FC Kansas City celebrate after beating Seattle Reign FC and winning the NWSL championship on Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

An investment group in Atlanta has publicly expressed interest but it seems like a good bet that future NWSL teams will be tied to MLS. The top three teams in attendance for the NWSL are all affiliated with MLS clubs: The Portland Timbers have the Thorns, Orlando City have the Pride, and the Houston Dynamo have the Dash. Both Orlando and Houston joined the NWSL as expansion teams. Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS, has said he expects more MLS clubs to start women’s teams, although Plush has said there have not been talks of a formal partnership between the two leagues.

Plush has always maintained that expansion candidates don’t need to come from MLS — but MLS franchises certainly check the boxes for the NWSL. Asked about those boxes to be checked, Plush said the ownership group takes precedence.

“The first and most important box is always ownership. There’s nothing more important than getting the right people to join your ranks. Not only in how they’ll operate in their local market but in how they’ll add value to the boardroom,” he said. “Once you get excited about that, then markets matter.”

“The important caveat to the market is that infrastructure needs to be available and in place to be successful — not only the soccer infrastructure of a venue and training facilities, but the human capital that can hit the ground running from day one.”

MLS clubs certainly have the infrastructure that Plush is talking about. The Thorns, for instance, were profitable from their first year, benefiting from a preexisting soccer fanbase, a stadium that is already paid for and 90-person staff that could share duties between the Thorns and Timbers. The Thorns’ 16,700 average attendance this season makes them a unique case, but the economics of using the existing infrastructure of an MLS club provides a clear advantage.

But clubs in the lower-tier USL and North American Soccer League are also possibilities. Executives from the Carolina RailHawks and Indy Eleven in NASL have openly expressed interest. Even if the Sacramento Republic remain in USL, that’s an option as well.

The NWSL is going to carefully weigh the options on the table.

“In the last handful of years, we’ve earned the right to be more demanding of ourselves and our potential partners and expect them come on board and give us success,” Plush said. “That gives us the opportunity to be measured in our approach and not be in any hurry to expand just to expand.”

MORE FROM FOX SOCCER: