NWSL Vibe Check: Orlando Pride with early offseason splash; NJ/NY Gotham commit major championship party foul

Welcome to the NWSL Vibe Check. Which headlines did you miss? I got you. Sources? Confirmed. What’s the landing spot for the league’s biggest free agents? Here’s what I’ve heard. What do I think about the latest moves from your favorite team? Here it is, unfiltered. 

So let’s hop to it with the latest NWSL Vibe Check:

Wheeling and dealing during NWSL Champions week

Gotham were crowned champions of the league, but that’s not all that was buzzing out of NWSL Championship week. While there are no “winter meetings” in NWSL like there are in, say, Major League Baseball, championship week does provide an opportunity for club executives, coaches, staff, and other employees to get together while celebrating the end of the year, and it just happens to take place a week before the trade deadline. Outside of NJ/NY Gotham FC and OL Reign, several clubs had representation on site throughout the week.

It’s an opportunity for those teams to finalize, or start, conversations around future deals or even just share data points. New ownership from Chicago Red Stars had a presence, executives from Orlando Pride, Angel City FC, and Kansas City Current were just some of the decision makers taking in the sights and sounds of what is the biggest event the year had to offer. 

Given that, maybe it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the early trades have heavily included Orlando.

Orlando makes early noise in trade window and free agency

The NWSL offseason has been in full swing for the non-postseason teams for some time, but the trade window opened immediately following the NWSL Championship. It wrapped up on Sunday night and, per the league, all trades had to be made public no later than 3 p.m. ET on Monday, Nov. 20.

The deals were flowing immediately. Unsurprisingly, expansion franchises Utah Royals FC and Bay FC were key players in negotiating early offseason moves, dangling protection in the NWSL Expansion Draft coming up on Dec. 15. Kansas City Current, Racing Louisville FC, and Orlando Pride were the clubs willing to take them up on the offer in order to have some roster protection ahead of the expansion draft.

Orlando has an early lead as my winner of the NWSL offseason. They’ve already traded themselves completely out of the upcoming expansion draft. They sent their natural first-round 2024 draft pick (No.8) to Bay FC in return for roster protection and $50,000 in allocation money. They then traded Mikayla Cluff and their No. 26 pick to Utah Royals FC for roster protection and $90,000 in allocation money.

It’s a pair of moves that signal Orlando’s commitment to building on its 2023 performance while keeping an eye on the market to improve the team. So what will happen with the $140,000 in return? The club struck out on a marquee free-agency signing last season. Despite re-signing Marta, the club wasn’t able to land a “new” unattached free agent despite rumors and reports that they had made a big push toward landing Debinha. 

But this is a new offseason, and Vice President of Soccer Operations and General Manager Hayley Carter and Head Coach Seb Hines officially have a full year of working together. Conceding one player and two draft picks ahead of a double expansion draft in the name of the franchise’s next step is a sign of good early moves. They’ve set up the groundwork. All that’s missing is that big, new, free-agency signing that escaped them last offseason. With their improved 2023 season, they could be in a better position to land one this year.

There’s no shortage of options in the league’s second annual free agency period. But which free agents are considered the top targets in the league this offseason? Here’s who has the buzz based on recent conversations:

  • Crystal Dunn
  • Rose Lavelle
  • Mallory Swanson
  • Tierna Davidson
  • Emily Fox

It’s quite a list of names, and Orlando should be disappointed if they don’t end up with one of them, or at the very least a reasonable alternative. 

Look out for a massive news dump on Monday as deals get finalized over the holiday weekend, with Orlando and the Bay still key players in the frenzy to land some of this year’s biggest free agents. Bay already got the party started, announcing long-time NWSL fullback Caprice Dydasco’s signing.

NWSL champions can’t keep being unserious

In case you’ve been living under a dark rock somewhere, the NWSL just crowned NJ/NY Gotham FC champions. And then the club missed their window of opportunity to commemorate the moment with a “traditional” event to celebrate the winning roster and bring fans together.

Unfortunately, in women’s sports there is no specific blueprint to follow when it comes to putting together post-championship celebrations that include the fan community interacting with a team’s winning roster. Some WNBA teams have been able to show that it is possible to host a parade and a rally. The 2019 USWNT World Cup winners were honored with a parade down the historic Canyon of Heroes in New York City as well. So, depending on type the of championship, the celebration has varied.

And, there are some examples of NWSL Championship-winning clubs to operate by. Since 2017, Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage were two clubs constantly involved in NWSL finals, and they have shown how to provide an in-person event to commemorate a championship-winning roster and share that experience with supporter groups, season ticket holders, and fans in general. 

Portland previously provided a ticketed event in 2017 and 2022 in the north or south ends of their stadium, the supporter sections, and set up a stage for players to interact and have their moment to celebrate with fans. North Carolina found a restaurant/bar to host a championship celebrating event in 2018 with players and fans. Washington Spirit dropped the ball in 2021, telling fans they would have a parade the following season to allow for better planning, only to never have the parade and have a championship ring night in Spring 2022.

Gotham’s attempt to go with the latter example, instead of the previous blueprint rightfully received backlash from long-time season ticket holders, supporters, fans, and even players criticizing the lack of urgency in a planned communal event that’s common for most professional sports. 

After a lot of back and forth and multiple statements by the franchise, the club did in fact host a celebration at Red Bull Arena on Monday. Over one week from the NWSL Championship game, and hastily organized, with some players already out of market or informed they would not return with the club next season, it was better than nothing, but not as good as it could and should have been. 

Moving on from the 2023 NWSL Championship

The 2023 NWSL Championship between OL Riegn and Gotham FC was a remarkable experience up close. It featured players and coaches who had been a part of early NWSL Championship events with little to no fanfare and few sponsorships. In an effort to make the NWSL Championship the league’s showcase event, year after year there has been an effort to make the title game feel like a celebration. 

That’s not to say there weren’t hiccups along the way. The league included a “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion summit,” building off 2022 NWSL Championship’s “Score More for Title IX summit.” This year’s “Pathways to the Pitch and Beyond” event was a mixed bag with some topics trying to strike a more celebratory tone, while others more closely mirrored the decidedly mixed reality of what these initiatives actually look like within NWSL spaces. 

It’s not the only event that needs improvement. The league introduced a Skills Challenge, but the event felt rushed, and not yet up to par with the scale of activities set for the weekend. It was held further from other events, taking place over the weekend and was hosted on what was essentially a gated patch of grass, with uncertainty around seating. In short, it felt and looked like the “first” NWSL Skills Challenge, so hopefully, this event will return with major upgrades.

An upgraded Fan Fest, complete with a prematch concert, and the recent championship match itself were great examples of how far the league has grown its biggest game of the year. 

Seeing just how good the collective experience of the main event can be should just add more urgency to both the league and future winners to make sure the rest of the experience, whether it’s a skills competition or a celebration after winning, better manage to live up to what the NWSL has built.

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