Concacaf, on Wednesday, announced details of the first-ever W Gold Cup, which will be held at a different time than originally planned.
The continental championship will be held from Feb. 17, 2024, until March 10, 2024. The tournament will be held in the United States, at venues to be announced.
The original plan for the tournament was for it to take place in June 2024, just before the Paris Olympics. That would have created significant fixture congestion and another major scheduling headache for the National Women’s Soccer League. As a result of the Gold Cup’s shift to the winter, next year’s SheBelieves Cup will be moved to a different date.
In forwarding the Concacaf release, U.S. Soccer stated, “U.S. Soccer is in the process of identifying the best dates to hold the tournament in 2024. This adjustment to the SheBelieves Cup schedule will only apply to years in which the Olympic Games are staged.”
The W Gold Cup expands Concacaf’s women’s competitions. The Concacaf men’s Gold Cup has been played since 1991, with the U.S. winning the first competition. Now, women’s sides in the region will be able to vie for the first-ever title.
The 12-team group stage of the Concacaf W Gold Cup will be held from Feb. 20-28, 2024, with the knockout rounds beginning on March 2, 2024. The first- and second-place team in each group will advance to the knockout rounds, along with the two best third-place teams. Four of those squads (Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Paraguay) will be guest teams from South America.
Qualification for the W Gold Cup will begin in September 2023, with a draw for qualifiers taking place on May 17, 2023. There is only one qualified team from Concacaf for the W Gold Cup: the United States women’s national team earned an automatic berth due to their first-place finish in the Concacaf W Championship in July 2022.
Canada or Jamaica will have a chance to qualify, as well. The two sides will feature in a two-leg Concacaf Olympic play-in, with the first match being held in Jamaica and the second in Canada, sometime in September 2023. That match will serve as the Olympic qualifier — the U.S. already qualified for the Olympics — and the winner will also earn a spot in the W Gold Cup.
The other six Concacaf teams will have to compete in the qualifiers in 2024. ‘The Road to the Gold Cup’ will see three league s— League A, B and C. Positions in those leagues are based on Concacaf rankings (not including the two that will compete at the 2024 Olympics). There will be nine teams in League A, 12 teams in League B and 16 teams in League C.
In League A, there are three teams in three groups. The top team in each group will earn an automatic qualifier to the W Gold Cup. The second place teams will face off with the first-place teams in League B — there will be three groups of four teams — for a spot in the Gold Cup.
League C teams will not have a chance to qualify for the W Gold Cup.
From Concacaf, beginning on Feb. 17, 2024: “The preliminary round will be composed of a single round. The six participants, to be determined via the Road to Concacaf W Gold Cup… will be divided into three pairings according to their Concacaf Women’s Ranking of December 2023 (published after the last match of the Road to Concacaf W Gold Cup), as follows:
Highest ranked team vs lowest ranked team
Second ranked team vs Fifth ranked team
Third ranked team vs Fourth ranked team
After single match elimination play, the winning team in each of the matchups will advance to the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup Group Stage (three teams in total).”
Concacaf President and FIFA Vice President Victor Montagliani said the W Gold Cup will be a “flagship event” for women’s soccer in the region.
“The tournament will be a celebration of the work we have done so far, hand-in-hand with our federations, implementing our groundbreaking Concacaf W strategy, which was launched in 2019 to prioritize the growth of women’s football at all levels,” Montagliani said. “While there remains more work to do, I believe we are now truly beginning to see the benefits of that strategy, not least through the performances of the record six Concacaf teams who have qualified for the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.”
Earlier this week, USL Super League president Amanda Vandervort met journalists to discuss the league’s plans. There are still many questions, some of which will be answered in the coming weeks, Vandervort said. Here’s what we know — and what we don’t, yet — about the USL Super League.
What is the USL Super League?
The USL Super League is a new professional women’s soccer league that will launch in August with eight teams in its first season. Last week, it received official sanctioning from the U.S. Soccer Federation as a first-division league. The National Women’s Soccer League is already a first-division league in the United States that first kicked off in 2013.
So, it will compete with the NWSL? Why didn’t USL stick with second-division plans?
Yes and no regarding competition. Both leagues are first divisions, which is confusing for just about any global soccer fan used to a traditional pyramid. The USL Super League initially announced its intention to launch as a second-division league, but last year it changed course to become first division. The short answer to why is that the difference between standards for a first-division women’s league and a second-division women’s league aren’t prohibitive to the USL’s ownership groups, many of which already operate second-division men’s teams and have to meet similar requirements for those teams, anyway.
U.S. Soccer does not limit how many leagues can exist at each division. The federation explicitly avoids that following an antitrust lawsuit brought about by the NASL, after the the USL and NASL competed for business as second-division men’s leagues in the previous decade. The NASL accused U.S. Soccer and MLS of collaborating in antitrust practices meant to impede the NASL’s business.
U.S. Soccer sanctions leagues using requirements laid out in its Pro League Standards (PLS). If a league meets those requirements, it can be sanctioned; the USL Super League meets the requirements. Among them: eight teams in at least two time zones in season one, all stadiums must seat at least 5,000 people, and the majority owner of each team must own at least 35% and have an individual net worth of $15 million.
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Have the USL Super League and NWSL had any discussions? Are they rivals?
It is unclear if the USL and NWSL have had any formal discussions. They have only ever acknowledged each other through statements of general support about more opportunities for women’s professional development.
I asked Vandervort whether the two leagues have been in contact at all, and what conversations with U.S. Soccer have looked like about having two D-1 leagues.
“Let me start with U.S. Soccer: They’ve been incredibly supportive of the Super League,” Vandervort said. “Everything we’ve been working with them on about this Division 1 sanctioning, and what those standards are for the USL Super League — a big thank you to [U.S. Soccer president] Cindy Cone and [CEO] J.T. Batson and the entire board of U.S. Soccer for supporting our application and approving our sanctioning. That’s been really positive and a wonderful experience working with the federation.
“And the same with the NWSL. We’re excited about where they are in their growth and development and we’re excited to join the movement of women’s professional soccer. We’ve been really public about the opportunity to potentially have a U.S. Open Cup or create some sort of competition. But for us, it’s early days. We want to get the Super League off the ground in a successful manner and be focused on the things that we need to do right to fill our stadiums and drive our media deal and get the footprint and footing right for the Super League here in year one, because I think that’s going to launch us towards long-term — this is generational, the Super League, and we want to get it right from the beginning and being really focused on what we bring to the table and what the Super League is and how we operate. The things that make us unique, special and different, we’re really focused on getting those right.”
NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman is a member of the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors. Whether the Super League specifically would get a seat at that table is unclear. “Those are ongoing discussions,” Vandervort said.
The NWSL issued the following statement to The Equalizer upon news of the USL Super League’s sanctioning:
“We congratulate the USL in their efforts to launch a professional league. We know the work and investment required.
“As we have seen from our record attendance, viewership, sponsorship revenue and expansion fees, the NWSL is growing at an exceptional pace, and we’re excited about our future.
“As the most competitive women’s league in the world, there are limited roster spots available in the NWSL. More opportunities to compete professionally is a good thing and we’re interested to see how a new league might contribute to the continued growth of our game.”
There are no unanimous opinions about the USL Super League among NWSL sources, but this much is clear: the contrast in how the leagues operate will force competition. In the long run, that could play out in several ways. Read more here.
What is unique about the USL Super League?
The big item of interest here is the calendar, a problem the NWSL has dealt with for a decade and one that has intensified recently — and will only get worse in coming years. As first reported by The Equalizer last year, NWSL leadership has discussed the idea of switching to a fall-to-spring calendar, although there has not been significant movement on the topic since.
The USL Super League will play a fall-to-spring schedule to align with the global calendar, which Vandervort & Co. feel will be advantageous in the international transfer market and for scheduling (all of which are lessons learned from the NWSL).
“I think it’s an incredible advantage, first so that our players can plan their international careers in combination with their club careers and not be fighting that battle about club and country throughout the summer months,” Vandervort said. “I think it also creates the opportunity… to have your top players in market for games on a more frequent basis, it creates a real energy around the fans and a real synergy between the fans and the players that I think we’re really going to draw on. This year-round competition allows players to compete in a competitive environment throughout the months when they’re not competing with their national team, too, so that their periodization is on track to be at peak performance when the Women’s World Cup comes around.”
There will be no college draft in the USL Super League, meaning all players are free agents as they would be globally. That stands in contrast with the NWSL’s American draft system, although the draft’s days in the NWSL could be numbered. As I’ve previously reported, trades involving future draft picks now include contingencies if said draft does not exist, a tangible sign that the elimination of the draft mechanism is being taken seriously.
USL teams also have established pipelines that NWSL teams still lack. There are 40 girls’ academy clubs on board for 2024 that are all directly connected to teams in either the USL W-League (amateur summer competition) or USL Super League, Vandervort said. The USL will also allow young players to compete in senior-team environments without sacrificing college eligibility by utilizing academy contracts, a concept already in place on the men’s side.
How many teams are there now?
The USL Super League will launch in August with eight teams: Brooklyn, N.Y.; Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; Spokane, Wash.; Tampa Bay, Fla.; Washington, D.C.
Six of those eight teams are in the Eastern Time Zone. “You might see those West Coast clubs coming east and playing a Wednesday-Saturday matchup,” Vandervort said. She acknowledged the current east-to-west imbalance as well as the number of cold-climate teams the league will have to factor into scheduling.
“Right now, it is absolutely stunning here in Tampa Bay [at USL headquarters], but I know there’s a [snow] storm going on up north,” Vandervort said. “So, we’re going to be navigating those other dynamics around our calendar and our schedule but right now with eight teams, I think we’ve got a great plan ahead of us.”
Vandervort did not speak in detail about what the winter break will look like, but she said “you can expect December and January” to be part of that.
What could this look like in a few years?
The USL Super League has disclosed eight additional markets that could launch in 2025 and beyond. They would “take the field upon completion of stadium projects and other important club development initiatives,” the league said in a release. Those markets are Chattanooga, Tenn.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Madison, Wisc.; Oakland, Calif.; Palm Beach, Fla.; Phoenix, Ariz., and Tucson, Ariz.
Phoenix and Tucson were originally announced as teams that would be part of the league’s launch in August. The Equalizer reached out to the USL Super League about why those teams are not launching in August and received the following statement from a league spokesperson:
“The pipeline of clubs excited to join the USL Super League in the future will see us bring professional women’s soccer to more communities than ever before. The timelines for their launches will naturally vary and shift as they continue to develop their stadium plans, club infrastructure, capital investment, and business strategies related to women’s soccer. We look forward to working with all of our ownership groups to ensure they are well-positioned to succeed on and off the field when they join the league.”
How big could the league become? And could there be more than just one division of the USL Super League, mimicking the two-tier professional model the USL utilizes on the men’s side? I asked Vandervort, who said:
“I don’t answer the question in terms of the total number; I answer it in terms of what’s right for the Super League,” Vandervort said. “ As we’re growing along with the growth of women’s soccer and bringing more professional women’s soccer closer to home in all these communities across the country, I think the question of how many is the right number will reveal itself as we grow and develop. I don’t have an answer to the exact number. In terms of the competition structure, that’s something that we’re working through, but we’re open as we build what’s right for the Super League and our entire ecosystem across the USL.”
Some of those prospective markets don’t scream ‘major league,’ but that is also a very American way of viewing things. (U.S. Soccer’s PLS requires 75% of the league’s markets to be in metropolitan areas of at least 750,000 people.)
“Fandom isn’t determined by the size of the city you live in,” Vandervort said. “That’s something that the USL really believes, that bringing soccer into these communities and providing professional women’s soccer in particular with the Super League, is something the fans are hungry for and they’ve just never had that opportunity.”
There is major interest in NWSL expansion, and right now that league is only committed to adding one more team for 2026 to join the incoming Boston team. Expansion beyond 16 teams seems likely given the economic benefits and interest, but there are more prospective investor groups looking for women’s soccer opportunities than there are places at the table in the NWSL, which will be charging more than the $53 million paid by Boston and Bay FC (kicking off next month). USL has not disclosed franchise fees, but they are certainly exponentially less than what NWSL is charging. That could create opportunities for hungry investor groups.
What caliber of player will be in this league?
Vandervort noted that the Super League will create over 150 additional roster spots and new job opportunities for professional players in the U.S.
“What an incredible time that we’re in that we’ve got more jobs for professional women’s soccer players than ever before,” she said.
The league is clearly looking to compete for players on the global market given its scheduling. There is an assumption that the Super League could draw the interest of NWSL depth players who desire more playing time, but that won’t become clear until at least the summer. Most answers on the player front won’t come for a while; several sources told The Equalizer that contracts won’t begin until summer, with some players agreeing to terms and finding short-term solutions for the spring.
Multiple sources noted that the USL Super League’s minimum salary, which is not yet finalized, could be around $35,000, which would largely mirror the NWSL’s salary floor. The NWSL minimum salary in 2024 is $37,856. Vandervort has previously spoken about the USL Super League offering competitive salaries comparable to the USL Championship, which is the second division on the men’s side.
This week, Vandervort stressed the USL Super League views its offering as a total package, including benefits like housing, not unlike how the NWSL now requires paid housing (or equivalent stipends) for players. She said the USL Super League has studied the NWSL’s collective bargaining agreement in depth, as well as other agreements globally. She was previously the chief women’s football officer at global players’ union FIFPRO, so she is well-versed in topics around unions and player welfare.
How can I watch the USL Super League?
To be determined. The USL recently signed a deal with CBS Sports to broadcast its men’s properties, but the Super League was notably left out of that.
“On the women’s side, we’re navigating that separately,” Vandervort said. “We know the USL Super League media rights have a high value, so we’re excited to be negotiating those rights separately.”
In November, the NWSL announced new media-rights deals with Amazon, CBS, ESPN and Scripps Sports worth $240 million over four years.
A lot. Only two of the eight teams have revealed branding. Several teams are racing to complete stadium projects. Several more still need to announce coaches and technical staff, who then need to find players. There is a schedule to be made and business partners to be announced.
“The first grouping of commercial partners” will be announced in the coming weeks, Vandervort said.
If you subscribe to the cliché that women’s soccer is a collective rocket ship, consider the January 2024 transfer window to be the arms race that set the future in motion.
Transfer spending increased 165% year over year despite a nearly identical volume of transfers, according to FIFA, and that number did not even appear to include the world-record fee of €735,000 (plus $75,000 in performance-based contingencies) paid by National Women’s Soccer League expansion side Bay FC for 23-year-old Zambian forward Racheal Kundananji, a move announced a few hours after FIFA’s report.
The transfer market is being redefined in front of our eyes and there is no set formula for player valuations. This is ground zero.
Kundananji’s move from Madrid CFF to Bay FC sets a new bar, but it featured a unique set of circumstances including an uncommonly large release clause and a buyer, Bay FC, that was playing with house money that would soon expire. Still, Bay FC general manager told The Equalizer that she expects the record to be broken again in the summer.
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For the fourth time since Chris Armas’ dismissal in 2020, a new boss will patrol the touchlines at Red Bull Arena. Gone is Gerhard Struber, who started out the 2023 season, as well as Troy Lesesne, who finished the season in an interim role. Enter Sandro Schwarz, who becomes the first RBNY manager to have had no prior connection with the Red Bull network (as a former player, assistant or otherwise) since Jesse Marsch.
Schwarz has been a head coach since 2009 – a position he’s served in at a number of stops, mostly in Germany. His two most notable stints were likely his last two gigs: a strong job in charge of Dynamo Moscow in Russia, and an ugly go of things last season with Hertha Berlin in Germany. Hertha won just five of Schwarz’s 29 games in charge, and he received the sack with the club staring down relegation in April.
In terms of style, the Red Bulls should still very much look like a Red Bull club under Schwarz. He’s already played the traditional hits in early media opportunities – intensity, high pressing and youth development. For better or for worse, the Red Bulls will likely always be a club where a broad, consistent identity will almost always be distinguishable, regardless of manager. The various assorted wrinkles and tweaks Schwarz will doubtlessly call upon in deploying this continued identity will be, like for many Red Bull bosses before him, what defines his tenure.
Other offseason odds and ends…
In terms of roster turnover from 2023, there’s not a ton to discuss for the Red Bulls. Former designated player Luquinhas headed to Brazil, and homegrown stalwart Omir Fernandez ended up in Colorado after his contract expired. Rotational midfielder Dru Yearwood was traded to Nashville, one of two minor trades alongside the aforementioned Barlow deal.
The incomings, however, have remained largely quiet as well. Forsberg is the crown jewel, but he’s also, really, the only jewel. First-round SuperDraft pick Aidan O’Connor received a contract and should offer depth at centerback. Kyle Duncan finished second on the Red Bull roster in G+ in 2023 and saw his loan from Belgium made permanent, reuniting him with the club he spent his academy days with.
The club’s other notable signing was Noah Eile, who fits the club’s traditional profile of a younger player with projectable upside. Eile isn’t unproven my any means – he’s made over 50 first team appearances in the Swedish top flight and cup – but he is still only 21 years old. Standing six foot five, Eile’s measurables certainly stand out, but the Red Bulls can also afford to take time with his development as the team’s preferred 2023 centerback pairing (Sean Nealis and Andres Reyes) returns for another year.