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U.S.’s South Korea friendlies come at expense of NWSL: Is it worth it?

Jun 16, 2013, 7:05 PM EDT

China v United States Getty Images

Laura Harvey confessed: It was something she’d have to get used to. Last Sunday, in the wake of a demoralizing home loss to FC Kansas City, the Seattle Reign coach was looking forward to the Sunday’s rivalry match without Hope Solo and Kaylyn Kyle, two important parts of her back five. True, Portland was going to be without the likes of Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, called in to U.S. and Canadian camps despite matches scheduled outside of FIFA breaks, but while Harvey was at Arsenal LFC, she didn’t have players taken from her out of window. This was something new; something frustrating.

That’s life in a federation-sponsored league. The U.S. and Canada (with help from Mexico) are shouldering much of burden for the NWSL, the three federations paying the salaries of players placed in the new eight-team league. What recourse did the Reign have? There’s no appetite to bite the hand.

For Canada, you can see the logic of the call-ups. John Herdman’s team travel to Germany for a Wednesday game that’s an important part of his team’s development. Ahead of hosting the 2015 World Cup, Canada’s looking at consistent matches against high-level competition to make their capable team into a more consistent one. How does Canada become a team that can regularly give performances like last year’s Olympic semifinal? By repeatedly putting the team in a position to step up.

The U.S. is in a different place. Their June 15th and 20th friendlies seem more a function of pre-NWSL habit than any kind of development need, something easily argued against when noting new coach Tom Sermanni has only been on the job six months. But while you can just as easily argue that players need time in camps to be evaluated properly, you could also argue that staying with their clubs while getting direction from both national team and club staff would help players settle into routines, habits that will better promote development.

Perhaps the North American club game isn’t there, yet. The type of improvement we’ve seen from Christen Press since she’s been in Sweden? Or the glimpses of six month’s further polish evident in Tobin Heath? Perhaps the NWSL can’t provide that, yet. Maybe these camps are still very much needed, even if the scheduling of South Korea — a decent if ultimately unthreatening opponent — hints these games may be part of an old, pre-league playbook: Schedule friendlies, sell tickets, and otherwise occupy this low point of the cycle.

But as the NWSL pushes on with a five-game week, three of which take place tonight, it’s hard to see how these mid-season benefit either U.S. Soccer or the NWSL in the long run. If the argument for throwing money behind the NWSL espouses the developmental value of a strong domestic league, then let the league be strong. Unless you have an opponent like Germany and a need like Canada’s, take the long view. Make the little sacrifices needed to embolden the NWSL so that in the this type of discussion eventually becomes irrelevant.

In their two games against South Korea, U.S. Soccer may raise money that will help pay their players’ salaries, this supporting the NWSL. But the domestic league was always going to be about little sacrifices: by owners; by players; and by the federations. Not calling in the national team players for mid-season matches against South Korea? That would have been just another small sacrifice toward the NWSL’s health.

(Author’s note: The original post made two references to the U.S.’s friendlies being out-of-window in regards to the international calendar. Those references were incorrect and have been removed.)

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