NWSL Expansion: McKriger’s Top Three Cities

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Op-Ed — The National Women’s Soccer League stands with nine teams. Where should NWSL expansion look next?

It’s been a rollercoaster existance for the league. While the NWSL celebrated its sixth season this past year, the longest of any women’s soccer league in the United States, there were some bumps in the road. Two clubs, the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City, folded. Meanwhile, only one club popped up as a replacement: the Utah Royals FC.

With nine teams, one team gets a bye-week every week in the NWSL.

Amanda Duffy, the commissioner of the NWSL, has hinted at possible expansion in the near future. Duffy has named Los Angeles as a city where the NWSL wants to land. That’s a great start for the league, but Los Angeles is also incredibly overcrowded with sports teams.

Also, there’s always two of everything in Los Angeles.

You’ve got the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers of the NFL, Clippers and Lakers of the NBA, Dodgers and Angels of the MLB and Los Angeles FC and the Galaxy for soccer.

It’s unlikely that the NWSL would follow in that path too. However, in addition to Los Angeles, here are some of my picks for cities that should be home to an NWSL club. These expansion cities would move NWSL to 12 clubs.

1) Atlanta, Georgia

MLS fans can preach about how Atlanta is becoming a soccer town.

About 50,000 fans show up regularly (73k for MLS Cup) to Mercedes Benz Stadium to support Atlanta United FC, who recently won the MLS Cup. Atlanta is a prime market with not a whole lot of competition. Sure, there are major league teams like the Falcons and Braves, but lack of success has made eyes turn toward soccer.

After all, Atlanta United’s win broke the Atlanta sports curse.

Atlanta is also a fresh, young market. According to World Population Review, Atlanta has increased in population since 2000. The last time the city decreased in population was in 1990. The median age of Atlanta is 33-years-old, making for a younger market.

If Atlanta United FC had a women’s team, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to see them play in the same stadium. However, if there was a secondary location for a women’s team, Bobby Dodd Stadium, where Atlanta United spent some time, would fit perfectly.

The capacity is still large, as Bobby Dodd can hold up to 55,000 fans.

Atlanta is a big soccer town and the sport will only grow after Atlanta United’s win. The NWSL should act fast on this market before the fizzle dies down. Plus, players like Kelley O’Hara are from Georgia. Picking her up in an expansion draft would create hometown buzz.

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2) Sacramento, California

I’ll admit, this wasn’t really a thought until this year.

For the longest time, aside from Los Angeles, I had Phoenix, Arizona as the perfect West Coast spot. However, soccer is on the rise in Sacramento, California.

The city was up for MLS expansion but was passed over in favor for Nashville SC — which was also a close pick — and Cincinnati. However, the buzz around Sacramento hasn’t faded. This past year, the city’s USL club, Sacramento Republic FC, made some noise in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Sacramento Republic FC beat the Seattle Sounders of MLS to advance to the Round of 16. However, the team fell in the Round of 16 to Los Angeles FC, who would end up making the semifinals. This past season, the club averaged an attendance of 11,311 fans.

Sacramento Republic FC plays at Papa Murphy’s Park, which has a capacity of 11,569 seats. That’s an impressive number and it could certainly rub off on an NWSL team.

Also, it’s not a foreign concept to have an NWSL partner with a USL club. The USL is the second-tier league in U.S. Soccer, right behind MLS. 2018 Champions the North Carolina Courage are partnered with North Carolina FC of the USL.

Local players from around Sacramento include Celeste Bourielle (San Francisco) and Megan Rapinoe (Redding, Ca.).

3) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m completely biased on this one.

I have lived in Pittsburgh since I was two-years-old. However, here’s the tricky thing about this city. While, yes, it’s the “City of Champions,” because of the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, Pittsburgh hasn’t quite developed to be a soccer town.

However, the excitement is getting there.

Pittsburgh is home to a USL club, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Owner Tuffy Shallenberger is a big-time soccer guy. He has invested plenty into the club, which plays at Highmark Stadium. The stadium just increased it’s capacity to around 5,000. The capacity got increased during the recent off-season, to keep up with the new USL requirements for the second division.

Pittsburgh’s soccer fans are dedicated. The Steel Army is the official supporters group for the Riverhounds. Chances are, the Steel Army would happily welcome a women’s soccer team. There is some familiarity with soccer around the city with the general public. During the last Victory Tour for the U.S. Women’s National Team, Pittsburgh was the largest crowd for a match against Costa Rica.

The match was held at Heinz Field, bringing in 44,028 fans. That number was also the highest-attended USWNT match of the 2015 year that was held on American soil and not including the actual FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Now, granted, it’s hard to use those numbers, because traveling fans come from all over the United States to see the national team. However, the showing was strong for Pittsburgh. The city also recently hosted Benfica and Borussia Dortmund at Heinz Field this summer.

As for hometown players, Meghan Klingenberg is a big supporter of her hometown. The Portland Thorns defender is from Gibsonia, Pa., which is north of the city. Meanwhile, Houston Dash rookie sensation Veronica Latsko is also from the area, graduating from Peters Township.

Again, I’m biased on that one, but my city would be a perfect spot for an NWSL club.

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