By Staff Writer
The 2016 National Women’s Soccer League season came to a close on Sunday with the Western New York Flash being crowned champions after beating the Washington Spirit on penalties. The final, which was contested at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium (home to NWSL’s Houston Dash and Houston Dynamo of MLS), brought the curtain down on the fourth season for NWSL.
That means the league has now lasted longer than any other professional league in the history of women’s soccer in the United States. Regular season attendance increased by 10 percent this season and there is talk of further expanding the league, which currently boasts 10 teams.
NWSL’s success this season is particularly notable in light of the failure of the United States Women’s National Team to defend its gold medal in the Olympics. Despite women’s soccer in this country not getting the summer bump it usually receives from tent-pole events featuring the USWNT, the league continued to grow and attract new fans.
The team’s newest franchise, Orlando Pride, set a league attendance record for its home debut, while Portland Thorns had the highest average attendance over the course of the season, which at 16,945, was better than some MLS teams.
Led by the free-scoring duo of Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, the Flash had the league’s best attack this season and it’s fitting that the Western New Yorkers hoisted the title, despite needing penalties to do so.
Portland not only had the best attendance, but were the best team overall, taking the most points in regular season and only losing on two other occasions before being edged on penalties by the Flash.
However, 2016 wasn’t necessarily a season in which fans got to see some of the league’s big USWNT stars shine. U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath (Portland) led the league on assists and Christen Press (Chicago) had the most shots on goal. Put apart from that, the league’s other big stars had rather middling seasons.
Alex Morgan (Orlando) didn’t even break into the top 10 in the goal scoring charts. Carli Lloyd (Houston) managed four goals and no assists in 12 appearances, and Hope Solo (Seattle) walked away from her team mid-season after being dropped by the national team for unsportsmanlike comments during the Olympics.
Sydney Leroux meanwhile, was on maternity leave and didn’t play a single game for her team FC Kansas City.
In the end, the story of the 2016 NWSL season may be one of a league beginning to find its own identity, beyond attracting casual fans wanting to see the likes of Morgan, Lloyd or Solo in action.
The fact that the league’s golden boot was awarded to Western New York’s Lynn Williams, a 23-year-old Pepperdine graduate with 11 goals, five assists, and no caps for the USWNT says a lot about how far the league has come from merely being a glorified training ground for the women of U.S. soccer during the international offseason.
With more expansion possible in 2017, and almost assured to take place by 2018, NWSL is a league that’s growing in stature and in terms of the quality on the pitch.
Written by Alex Baker. Photos by ISI and Brad Smith.