NWSL faces challenge (and opportunity) with Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan going abroad

Crystal Dunn, a rising star with the U.S. women’s national team, signed with Chelsea on Tuesday and will play in England this year, making her the second USWNT star to leave the National Women’s Soccer League for this season.

It’s a big move for Dunn, but it’s a bigger move for the NWSL, which will already see Alex Morgan — the most marketable player in the league — miss a chunk of the 2017 season to play in France. While Morgan will re-join the NWSL in the summer, Dunn’s Chelsea contract runs through 2018 and she will not be splitting any time with the NWSL.

For the NWSL, which is backed by U.S. Soccer, the loss of any USWNT players, especially high-profile goal-scorers like Morgan and Dunn, is poised to put at least some pressure on the league’s clubs. While the four-year-old NWSL is the best women’s league in the world, it has often been somewhat dependent on the star power of USWNT players, who play in the league as part of their federation contracts.

This presents a new challenge for a league that has steadily grown in support but is still young and not quite proven its staying power. Clubs may need to re-think their approach to marketing without Morgan, Dunn, or whoever else leaves during the quiet international stretch. That may mean growing pains that are positive in the long run as the league pushes for sustainability, but present a challenge in the short term.

Crystal Dunn dribbles the ball against Japan defender Mayu Sasaki in June. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

Morgan alone has the power to give clubs their best attendance of the year when they host her club, the Orlando Pride. Last season, each club’s highest or second-highest home match by attendance was when Morgan’s Pride came to town. In years past, when she has been injured as a player for the Portland Thorns, fans with Morgan jerseys would still show up and could be heard in the stands asking where Morgan is.

While Morgan is an established superstar, Dunn is more of a rising star and a better representation of the USWNT’s future. The 24-year-old Dunn just narrowly missed the roster for the 2015 World Cup but, after a stellar Washington Spirit season, was an obvious selection for the Olympics the following summer. She was the runner-up for the USWNT’s top honor in 2016, too. She may not garner the attention of Morgan, but she is exactly the kind of player who has helped the NWSL be the destination for top club play in women’s soccer.

For the NWSL, which is keen to expand its footprint as a national property, keeping both fan interest and the quality on the pitch stable is important in continuing to attract sponsors, broadcast partners and fans. Having stars in the league is only part of that, but it’s been undoubtedly one of the best assets for clubs to take advantage of.

A big question mark, for now, is how the USWNT’s new contract will shape up and change the relationship between the USWNT and the NWSL. Right now, USWNT players are expected to play in the NWSL for salaries that go beyond the league’s salary caps. But changes in compensation or conditions could help not only USWNT players stick around, but also the league’s best players who are just outside of national team consideration.

At the moment, it looks like the departure of Morgan and Dunn creates a challenge for the NWSL that was going to be necessary for the league to take on sooner or later. It’s still unclear if more USWNT stars will follow Morgan and Dunn abroad, but if the NWSL’s clubs can continue to attract fans with a strong on-field product, maybe it won’t be such a bad thing.