The greatness of NWSL internationals continues to be underappreciated

ISI Photos-Trask Smith
ISI Photos-Trask Smith

If Sam Kerr and Nahomi Kawasumi were American, we would have heard a lot more about their huge weeks.

Richard Farley
17 May 2017

They were performances that made fans thankful to have their women’s league. One was from Tobin Heath, a four-assist night that highlighted the craft and ferocity of a domineering star. The other was from Christen Press, whose Sinclair-esque goal, assist, and forced-penalty day poured kerosene on the already heated Press-Morgan debate.

When U.S. Soccer decided to fund the NWSL, undoubtedly, these were the performances it had hoped to foster. And those fans who persevered through the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer were left buzzing at their payoff, fulfilled and agape at what their new, now entrenched league can offer.

And, of course … none of that actually happened.

At least, it didn’t happen via Heath, Press, or any of the other U.S. women’s national team stars who have become the faces of the NWSL. Instead, those performances came from two internationals, Japan’s Nahomi Kawasumi and Australia’s Sam Kerr, perhaps explaining why few beyond the NWSL’s hardcore fans took notice of their record-setting, intimidating performances.

Kawasumi’s was the best performance the NWSL has ever seen from a wide player, her pristine and purposeful touches making every ball played down Seattle’s right into a scoring chance. As for Kerr, an attacker with World Player of the Year potential, it truly was a day worthy of Christine Sinclair, with the 23-year-old’s drive setting up Leah Galton’s goal displaying the same gravity we would see from one of the Canadian icon’s runs.

The potential buzz from those performances is, of course, debatable, but even in the shadows of the NWSL, the exploits of Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe can see the light of day. The rest of the U.S. women’s national team? Fans who care most about their favorite U.S. players’ club form still, likely, outnumber the league’s diehards, a state that’s existed since the league was imagined some five years ago. Since late 2012, the reality of the league remains unchanged: The mundane, week-to-week of its 10 teams’ results sits dim next to the national team stars.

Another reality, though, is embodied by Kawasumi, Kerr, and the myriad other international stars that call the league home. The NWSL may be our (Americans’) domestic league, but it’s not strictly a domestic league. Where would the circuit be without Sinclair, as big a star as the competition has ever had? Without Scotland’s Kim Little, the best player to play in league history, or Wales’ Jessica Fishlock, her partner in crime in Seattle? Where would the NWSL be without players like Veronica Boquete (Spain), Amandine Henry (France) and Marta (Brazil) dropping in, or without the best of a deep Australian player pool spending much of its time on U.S. soil?

Fifty-one international players claim roster spots across the league’s 20-woman squads, but that one-in-four ratio understates their importance. Almost no foreign players come to fill out the league’s depth charts. Their contributions are crucial. Forty-five of those imports start or regularly play as substitutes, while another four have been left out only because of injury. The NWSL may be a U.S.-driven league, but international players play an indispensible part.

Thanks to Kawasumi and Kerr, that part was on full display last weekend, but they weren’t the only internationals to stand out. Fishlock was her typical, invaluable part of Seattle’s midfield, as was Scottish international Rachel Corsie in Seattle’s defense. Brazilians Camila and Marta played vital roles as Orlando upset previously undefeated North Carolina. Canadian Adriana Leon continues to be dangerous for the league’s surprise team, Boston, while New Zealand’s Rosie White has transitioned with ease and pugnacity into the Breakers’ midfield.

Had their performances come instead from Morgan Brian, Julie Johnston, or Lindsey Horan, more would have taken notice. That’s not breaking news; that’s natural. People have biases, and most NWSL fans are going to be biased toward supporting the U.S. women’s national team. What that is, though, is slightly unfair to those players, whose achievements deserve the same respect an American’s.

[Counting down the five best intenational players in NWSL history]

That bias, though, isn’t the only thing muting international players’ acclaim. As a young league, the NWSL has only so many ways to amplify its own message. The league has finally gotten to a place where, when reason arises, it can crack a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight reel. English striker Rachel Daly’s opening weekend goal for Houston was testament to that. The more mundane greatness of a Kawasumi, or even a Sinclair? Scott Van Pelt won’t have that copy in his teleprompter.

The NWSL is a long way from being able to manufacture its own stars, or drive narratives that would take Sam Kerr to the masses. For as spectacular as Little was in Seattle, the former MVP didn’t capture imaginations beyond the league’s devoted. As much as that may be a U.S.-versus-international thing, it may also be a fact of a five-year-old business. When it comes to carving out a place in sports culture, the NWSL can’t be expected to do much.

But the lack of attention is also a fact of women’s sports coverage. Though leagues like the NWSL and WNBA have some bandwidth in the broad conversation, there’s rarely enough room for two stories at once. Consider this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and the lack of attention the University of South Carolina got for winning the title. The story that carried the day, there? The fact Connecticut fell short. Consider also last fall’s WNBA playoffs. After a brilliant clinching game, LA Sparks icon Candace Parker went from sports show to sports show celebrating her team’s title. It was rare that those shows also also featured the regular-season MVP, Nneka Ogwumike, too.

There are too many realities here to decide which is most dominant, and it is worth considering how spectacular, audacious and transcendent a foreign star would have to be to capture a broader imagination. An NWSL record four assists weren’t good enough for Kawasumi, nor was Sam Kerr’s commanding performance against Houston.

Is there something a non-U.S. player could do to get the acclaim that the likes of Tobin Heath would get if she set a league record? And if not, what are we watching these games for? The amazing talents, competition, and conflicts? Or are we just here to see the American players do well?

Even in this column, we talked about U.S. players first. We crafted a hypothetical to make the message hit home. For hardcore NWSL fans, that trick was unnecessary, perhaps even insulting, but for those who keep the league in a very specific, very confined corner of their fandom, that trick may have convinced them to read this far.