Portland, Oregon — Win the World Cup on Sunday. Fly to New York Monday. Appear on Good Morning America on Tuesday. Take part in a parade Wednesday morning, then fly to LA for the ESPYs that night.
Then, finally, after 50 days of training camp and tournament play, followed by 72-odd hours of non-stop celebrating, the world-champion U.S. women’s national team got to come home to their club teams this week.
“You go from treating your body like a temple, to just like, throwing it out the window,” laughed national team and Portland Thorns FC winger Tobin Heath, safely back in Portland earlier this week. “It feels so good to be home.”
“I feel like we haven’t really had a breather,” said Lindsey Horan, Heath’s Thorns teammate. “It’s awesome. I’m so happy to be back here and starting back with the Thorns, so it’s kind of a whirlwind. It’s nonstop.”
Even during the World Cup, the nine teams of the NWSL were surprising and entertaining fans. The thrills have only continued as the league’s international World Cup players have returned in waves to their clubs, with the Thorns hosting the Orlando Pride in one of the wildest games of the season last weekend.
In what was also the first nationally televised NWSL match of 2019, the home team went up 2-0 on goals by Hayley Raso and Midge Purce, and by the 60th minute, the game looked likely to be a straightforward win for the Thorns.
Until Marta had a say.
— NWSL (@NWSL) July 14, 2019
It was the kind of rollercoaster that showcases just how thrilling and unpredictable the NWSL tends to be. “That’s the type of excitement the NWSL definitely brings,” said Thorns and USWNT goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, “and with people getting on that train from the World Cup to this, they see that type of game and they’re like, ‘I could definitely get into that.’ How do you not watch a game like that and then get excited?”
Franch was in attendance with some family members on Sunday, but made it down to field level just in time to get in on the post-whistle celebration with her club. “I was going to come after, so I was down here before the whistle blew, and I literally walked out the door right before that corner happened. When we scored the goal, I automatically beelined it to the bench and started celebrating,” she said. “When I saw all these girls, it was like, it was home, you know? I was excited to be back.”
The importance of the NWSL has been a central element in discussions about continuing to grow the women’s game in the wake of the World Cup. The Budweiser ad campaign following the announcement of their multi-year partnership with the league focused on that, and Alex Morgan gave a shoutout to the league at the ESPYs.
That conversation feels different than it did the last time the U.S. won a World Cup, in 2015. It’s hard argue that a stable, high-level professional league hasn’t strengthened the national team, and with the league well-established in its seventh year, competition is stiffer than ever.
“Ever since I’ve been back from PSG and come here,” said Horan, “I’ve turned into a different player, and I think that goes mentally and physically and on the field. … It’s physically just such a demanding league, and it’s thriving, and it’s doing so well. I think you see it in the ICC tournament, you know, North Carolina goes out and wins against Lyon, so we’re matching up against the rest of the countries in the world that have these amazing leagues. I think that’s awesome for the NWSL, and hopefully now after this World Cup, things will get better and better for our league.”
North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, speaking at a press conference for the four USWNT members returning to the Courage this week, echoed that sentiment, and expressed his hope that the World Cup will help bring lasting attention to the NWSL. “It’s been amazing for the NWSL to be in the spotlight. All these players, they give us the spotlight. … It’s every four years, and I think we have to do better than every four years. We have to do it every year. But when they come back to their clubs, obviously it’s a big part of the club business, too, to have them back in town and have people in the local area be able to watch them.”
The Courage are on the road this weekend against the Chicago Red Stars, and the game had already set a local attendance record for a women’s professional club game by the end of last week. Those two teams have a combined eight USWNT members on their rosters, including Crystal Dunn, Alyssa Naeher, and Julie Ertz—not to mention Brazilian international Debinha and Australian superstar Sam Kerr.
Red Stars vs. Courage will be televised on ESPN2 on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET.
“I think the big message with the NWSL is everyone has a part,” said Thorns and USWNT defender Emily Sonnett. “Whether it’s an excuse to have a drink, an excuse to get out of the house, bring the kids, just get out there, I think if people are not exposed to it, it is a heck of a lot of fun coming to a game.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) July 17, 2019