USA women’s soccer – leading the sporting response

Amongst the last two decades of large-scale change, from digitalisation to destruction, the USA has evolved to consistently remain a trailblazer in women’s soccer across the globe, and as of today, the entirety of stateside sport.

At the other half, we have been impressed by the determination and resilience displayed from those who not only pioneered the women’s game but those who picked up from where others, unfortunately, failed, to create the current National Women’s Soccer League that has progressed over the last eight years.

Arguably, these change management traits can be seen now more than ever – the NWSL is set to become the first major sporting league in America to resume action following suspension from COVID-19, courtesy of an exciting new league format, a picturesque setting, and of course, strict safety regulations.

If all goes to plan this weekend, it would be a feat that has not come without its challenges. But to truly understand where women’s football across the pond is today, we must acknowledge how it has adapted over time..

Back when many were revelling in the turn of the Millennium, the US national team was still fresh from their 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup triumph and the country introduced the world’s first fully-professional women’s soccer league – the Women’s United Soccer Association.

Unfortunately, the WUSA in its original guise failed to generate enough revenue for long-term existence and was replaced by the W-League and Women’s Premier Soccer League as the recognised first-tier competitions; the former folded in 2015 while the latter currently exists at North America’s second level.

In 2007, a new league called Women’s Professional Soccer became the top league in the country, following the footsteps of WUSA. That was before legal and operational issues saw its collapse in 2012, only to be swiftly followed by the National Women’s Soccer League that stands strong today.

Since the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, the USA have always finished in the top three, most recently lifting the trophy back-to-back in 2015 and 2019; all 23 players of last summer’s winning squad coming from NWSL clubs.

Becoming the greatest ever nation in the women’s game, whilst establishing three different top-flight leagues in 12 years with teams, players and staff regularly coming and going, required change management at its best, adjusting to both internal and external factors.

Such qualities have since seen the NWSL take to new heights. In normal circumstances, the season would have started in April, with every team playing each other thrice; 24 matches culminating in a league table which leads to play-offs that eventually decide the campaign’s champions.

However, with the pandemic ongoing, this season has been transformed into the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, presented by P&G and Secret; the Rio Tinto Stadium playing a starring role in front of a majestic backdrop of trees and snow-capped mountains, with domestic fans able to watch every kick on CBS All Access, and games will be streamed internationally for the first time on Twitch.

Initial plans outlined a preliminary round of fixtures, followed by knockout matches from quarterfinals onwards; not so dissimilar to the popular World Cup format that US women’s soccer is accustomed too.

Yet, the league announced on Monday that six players and four staff members of Orlando Pride had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the club to withdraw from the Challenge Cup, leaving the remaining eight teams to contest for the title in an updated 23-game tournament.

Every team will reside in an ‘NWSL Village’ created by Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen. The league has also been very open about the procedures that will be implemented to ensure a safe, and hopefully sensational, return to sport.

Similar to Dana White’s exploits in staging UFC 249 amidst the epidemic, leaders in the NWSL have, through change management, tried to provide the best chance of headlines and viewership in US sport throughout the coming weeks.

The ability to exhibit resilience is a desirable attribute for teams within the change management process, commonly defined as the capacity to quickly recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.

Through all of the turbulence women’s soccer has faced over the last couple of decades, the commitment to its prosperity, from some, never left; the result reflected in the country’s dominance at international level, even when there were sometimes questions around how future female players would be developed.

Resilience and adaptability played an instrumental part then, and now in bringing live competition back to Americans, demonstrating the NWSL as leaders of the sports industry.