By Kyle McCarthy
INDIANAPOLIS – Zakiya Bywaters discussed the imminent demise of the WPS during a trip to La Manga, Spain with the U.S. under-23 national team last February. At the time, Bywaters and her teammates wondered whether they would have the opportunity to continue their careers at the professional level in their home country. None of them knew what the future held.
Bywaters soon returned to UCLA and scored 15 goals in her final collegiate season without the usual enticements afforded to promising prospects. The reward for her success arrived in November when the NWSL established a place for her to accelerate the transition from orchestrator to plunderer.
Instead of trying to figure out how to locate competitive matches and training sessions after finishing her time with the Bruins, Bywaters can focus on moving to Chicago after the Red Stars made her the number one pick in the inaugural NWSL college draft on Friday morning.
“Now that it’s back, we’re all relieved because we have an avenue to play the game we love and we know,” Bywaters said.
The path isn’t entirely clear of obstacles. Like many college graduates, these newly minted professionals must confront real concerns about making ends meet in the real world. The prudent and tempered fiscal philosophy of this new league – complete with low five-figure salaries – means the 32 players selected in the draft will scrape along like many of their peers as they chase their dreams.
“If anybody turns pro, they think, wow, you’re going to be making a lot of money,” U.S. under-23 goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said after Western New York selected her with the sixth overall pick. “In reality, you’re playing because you love the sport, not because of the finances. That’s something me and my mother discussed. She told me go to play because I love it. If you make money, it’s a plus. But if you’re just living and playing, you’ll do just fine.”
Each of the eight teams will hope their four college draft picks share those mature sentiments. The next generation lacks the cachet of established stars like Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, but it represents a critical step in the development of the domestic league and the national team. They must form the bedrock for this new competition and offer reinforcements in the battle to remain atop the ever-improving international scene.
For now, those lofty goals yield to more pragmatic issues. There are new lives and new teams to build with no guarantees around the corner. Even with the financial backing of U.S. Soccer and the Canadian and Mexican federations in place and the renewed commitment to making this new league work, the failures of the past supply a stark reminder that the future remains tenuous.
Those harsh realities, however, do not diminish the excitement for a group of players ready to embark on a journey they worried might never occur.
“That uncertainty – for everyone – is kind of scary,” Franch said. “But that’s life. It’s awesome to be able to come and play and be a part of this. Whether this lasts a year, two years or five years, depending on how it goes, to be able to say I was a part of something is the best part about it.”