On Feb. 18 the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) announced the full 2016 schedule, and there was one very noticeable difference from last season.
Each team will face off against one team, usually a team that is close in proximity, four times throughout the season instead of just two. This appears to be the league’s attempt at creating rivalries within the league, something that is currently lacking with the exception of the steadily-growing Seattle Reign FC v FC Kansas City and deep-seated Portland Thorns FC v Seattle Reign rivalries.
While I commend the league for attempting to create more rivalries between teams—something many fans agree would help increase viewers, bolster ticket sales and promote team pride—this system of schedule-based rivalries is a bit hit-or-miss.
For example, look at Sky Blue FC, whose league-sanctioned rival is the Washington Spirit.
Let's look at the hits and misses of this forced rivalry to see why it will and won't be successful this season.
Sky Blue and the Washington Spirit are located closer to one another than to any other NWSL teams, their stadiums less than three hours away from each other. With the exception of Seattle and Portland, this is the shortest distance between rivals in the league. Proximity is important in that it allows fans of both teams to easily travel to away games, thereby promoting attendance. The more visiting fans that can attend matches, the more fan involvement will take place. When large groups of fans constantly "compete" against one another in the stands while their teams compete on the field, rivalries—even friendly ones—tend to form between the fan bases.
The teams also have a bit of history. In 2014, Sky Blue finished sixth in the league, tying the fifth-place Chicago Red Stars with 35 points, while the Spirit finished fourth with 36 points. Just one point and one win made the difference in Washington going to the playoffs and Sky Blue staying home. Sky Blue won the 2009 Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) Championship and has been looking for their second title ever since, and they will surely remember the team that denied them their best shot at another title during the NWSL’s existence.
The Spirit has also been a strong competitor the past two years, making it to the playoffs both seasons before ultimately losing to the Seattle Reign in the semifinals. If Washington is as strong of a contender this year as they have in the past—and they very well may be with the return of U.S. Women’s National Team (U.S. WNT) players Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn, who was also the 2015 NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner—then Sky Blue may look to steal their spot in the playoffs.
At the end of the 2015 season, both teams found themselves without coaches. However, after about two weeks, the Spirit announced a new head coach: Jim Gabarra, the former head coach for Sky Blue FC. Gabarra had coached for Sky Blue since the NWSL’s inception and even coached a season for the team during its WPS days. However, his ties to Washington were stronger than those to New Jersey, and he quickly left to fill the vacancy left by Mark Parson’s departure from the Spirit. Both Sky Blue players and fans may feel a little irked by Gabarra’s hasty exit for Washington, and rivalries have been bred over less bad blood than this.
Both teams also feature defenders for the U.S. WNT. Sky Blue’s Kelley O’Hara joined the national team as a forward-turned-midfielder before being converted to a defender when Krieger tore her ACL during the 2012 Olympic Qualifying tournament. Now that the national team is once again gearing up for the Olympics, it seems as though head coach Jill Ellis has O’Hara and Krieger competing against one another for the starting right back spot. The competition between the two defenders just may carry over to their NWSL club play, creating a little rivalry of their own on the pitch.
It’s hard to create a rivalry when the teams aren’t evenly matched. There’s little or no competition, no sense of urgency and no real importance to the matches when that’s the case. While Sky Blue and the Spirit were in close contention during the 2014 season, that was definitely the exception. In 2013 Sky Blue finished fourth in the league while the Spirit finished dead last, and Sky Blue ended the season with a 3-0-1 record against the Spirit. Fast forward to 2015, and the roles were practically reversed. The Spirit finished third and Sky Blue eighth, and the Spirit won both of the teams’ matches.
The teams seem to be in similar positions this season. Sky Blue’s roster has taken a series of deep hits, and the addition of MAC Hermann Trophy winner Raquel Rodriguez and the return of forward Natasha Kai may not be enough to compensate for the number of players retiring, opting out of the 2016 season or recovering from injuries. With such a shaky roster, it may be hard for Sky Blue to claw its way up from the bottom of the table. In comparison, Washington once again seems to be sitting pretty with the likes of Krieger, Dunn and Canadian National Teamers Diana Matheson, Stephanie Labbé and Shelina Zardorsky.
Sky Blue and the Spirit first play in April, meet again in May and then play their final two match-ups in July. The end of the NWSL season isn’t until September. When the teams play their final games against each other almost two months before the end of the NWSL season, the games won’t even be important in regards to playoff berths. Neither team will go into the other’s house needing to pull off a dramatic win in order to earn enough points to make the playoffs. Those games will instead be played against teams in August and September. If the league truly wanted to foster area rivalries, they should have ensured at least one end-of-season match-up between the two.
Low attendance numbers
Sky Blue isn’t known for being an especially high-draw team when it comes to attendance. Last season Sky Blue’s lowest attendance was also the league’s lowest attendance at a mere 953 fans for the April 26 match against the Spirit. Their highest attendance was just over 5,500 for the August 22 match against Portland, a post-World Cup match that featured four World-Cup champions and had playoff implications for the Thorns. Sky Blue finished at the bottom of the table in league attendance, averaging just over 2,000 fans per game. Washington finished fourth in average attendance with just over 4,000 fans per game. In comparison the league average attendance was about 5,400 fans, but teams such as Portland had more than double the number of fans at some of their matches.
A league cannot force a rivalry. They are the products of strong competition, bitter opposition, devastating losses and electrifying wins. They grow from feuds that occur on and off the pitch between players, coaches and fan bases. They are full of heart and soul and team pride. Rivalries are developed and created over time, not scheduled overnight.
It's a miss
While the Sky Blue-Washington Spirit "rivalry" has potential, I don’t expect any real rivalry to develop simply from the extra match-ups. This is more of a miss than a hit in my book.
I give the NWSL an A for effort in attempting to boost league interest through the creation of rivalries, but overall I give it a D- for execution. It’s a nice idea, but some things just can’t be forced.