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Exploring the Australian exodus from the NWSL

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Why are all the Matildas opting for European football?

SOCCER: SEP 23 NWSL - Portland Thorns FC at Orlando Pride Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As of today, 18 of the 20 players Ante Milicic called into the last Matildas camp (for their Olympic qualifiers against Vietnam in March), are registered to play in Europe this/this coming season. The other two split between Emily van Egmond in NWSL and Tameka Yallop still listed to her last W-League club. And both have enjoyed spells on the continent over their careers.

Whilst it’s no surprise to see Matildas playing around the world, it’s jarring just how many of them have left the familiarity of NWSL and though there isn’t just one reason, there are valid motives as to why Europe has lured so many away this year.

Two half seasons

One of the biggest draws of the NWSL is the chance for Australian players to split their time between the American and Australian leagues. This doesn’t just ensure a chance to stay in the familiar surroundings of their home in the Southern Hemisphere and play through pleasant weather all year long (visits to the Plex not withstanding). But this gives all players who divvy up their time between the W-League and NWSL a full season, or even, a full season and a little bit more.

The only problem with going from one league to the other ad infinitum (whilst constantly trekking back and forth across the globe for national team camps, friendlies and tournaments) is the simple lack of break. There is no full window to wind down from the end of one season and rev into a pre-season for the other, and it’s of little surprise to see so many Matildas sidelined with injuries so often.

Australia v Brazil - Women’s International Friendly Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Moving to some of Europe’s more professional leagues allows for a full season of football that starts around September and finishes around May, leaving suitable time over the summer to recover from one season and prepare for the next. Although it’s worth noting, for those who opt to play in Scandinavia, there remains the option of returning to the W-League (or at least would in a non-pandemic year), as the calendar is more in line with the NWSL’s.

Safety and foundations

When putting together an article about NWSL for another site, it was jarring just how many NWSL players talk about feeling like they’re on a rollercoaster, or playing for their survival in the American league. Although any Australians in NWSL would be using up an international spot on their team’s roster and would be far less likely to get traded as freely as those who’ve come through the draft, doubt still exists.

As Tiffany Weimer said in the above article, “As you can imagine, it was comforting to know that once I signed a contract, I had a job for the whole season. That once I moved into an apartment and tried to make it a home, that I would not be moved to another city at the drop of a dime.”

Moving to Europe, be it WSL, Toppserien, or anywhere else on the continent, locks the player in place for a full season. It gives the safety net that NWSL does not, there isn’t that nagging worry that you’ll get traded and be shipped across the country at any moment. Unlike in American sports, a contract (be it for half or a full season, or even several years), is intended to run its course and keep players in place and although loans can occur, trades do not. The power remains with the player. This ensures players are going into their football in a different head space and the focus can be 100% on the football.

It might not sound like much, but the chance to settle into your surroundings and play for your team in a way you might be unable to in the USA can give a certain piece of mind, or as Amanda Frisbie said, “It’s like more of a family culture; you’re playing for the person next to you, you’re not playing for yourself or worrying about this and that.”

Challenging

One of the commonly held beliefs is that the NWSL is the best league in the world. I’m not about to start a war by saying it is or isn’t – such discussions tend to get bogged down in people trying to factualise subjectivity – but it is, undeniably a strong league. NWSL, unlike many around the world, is more balanced and, as the Challenge Cup is proving, no one team is lagging behind their counterparts.

It’s no secret that Norwegian Toppserien (where Teagan Micah, Clare Polkinghorne, Karly Roestbakken and Katrina Gorry currently are) isn’t the strongest league in Europe, or even the strongest in Scandinavia. Similarly, Kyah Simon and Amy Harrison aren’t going to have a comparable experience at PSV Eindhoven as they did when they were in the NWSL.

The main thing all these leagues that are not the NWSL offer all players is that they are exactly that: not the NWSL. The pace and style will be different, the approach will not be one they’re familiar with, and with any hope, all these players (and everyone who leaves their home league for that of another country) will grow from the different ways of viewing and playing football.

It’s an over-simplification to suggest that the Matildas who’ve moved to Europe for 2020 or 2020-21 season are doing so because, well, they’re being paid to move to Europe and play football – how sick. Each move into the unknown gives a player a chance to challenge themselves on both personal and professional levels. Not least those who move to countries where they’re not familiar with the language (such as Lisa De Vanna at Fiorentina and Ellie Carpenter at Olympique Lyonnais).

So no, WSL or Damallsvenskan might not offer up the same things as NWSL, but isn’t that exactly the point.