Where to now for the W-League? Matildas exodus to Europe a worrying trend

Wherever you are in the world, every football league has one or two central storylines that define a season. This year's Premier League revolves around the polar-opposite directions in which Liverpool and Manchester United are heading. The A-League is the same, but with Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers. The FA Women's Super League is observing the impact of full-time professionalism and the surge of "the big three." The NWSL has the North Carolina Courage dynasty and the rebuild of Sky Blue FC. And so on.

The W-League is no different. Since 2015, we've had the "Melbourne City Do the Double in their First Season" season; the Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets seasons; and the season of Christine Nairn and Sam Kerr. The 2019-20 campaign was on track to be the Western Sydney season, marked by improvements off the field as much as by improvements on it, and a possible turning point for the league more widely.

But another storyline has reared its head in recent weeks; one that now threatens to overshadow everything else when we look back over the moments that shaped Australia top women's domestic competition: 2019-20 is the Matildas exodus season.

What started as a trickle -- Alex Chidiac to Spain, Lisa De Vanna to Italy, Emily Gielnik to Germany, Jacynta Galabadaarachchi to England -- has now become a torrent. In the past six months, 11 Matildas have made or will make the move to Europe including Kerr, Aivi Luik, Hayley Raso, Chloe Logarzo, Clare Polkinghorne, Katrina Gorry, Caitlin Foord, and Mary Fowler. It's unlikely they will be the last as Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, and Karly Roestbakken have all publicly expressed interest in joining them.

The W-League now finds itself asking some serious existential questions: what is its purpose, its ultimate goal? What is its identity? Or, perhaps more importantly, what should they be?

The aim of this piece is to lay out the larger storyline within which these moves are happening; to take stock of the seismic shifts occurring in domestic women's football -- whose aftershocks the W-League is now experiencing -- and to offer a path forward for the Australian game.

A Brief History of the W-League

When the W-League launched in 2008, it consisted of eight teams: seven were directly affiliated with an A-League club while one was a stand-alone entity. It began with a 10-round regular season and a two-week finals series, and ran for roughly four months between October and February. If Australian players wanted to continue playing football year-round, they had two options: go overseas or play in Australia's state-based competition, the National Premier Leagues (NPL).

The W-League is now in its 12th season and, structurally, not much has changed over that time. The league now consists of nine teams after Central Coast Mariners folded and Western Sydney (2012) and Melbourne City (2015) were introduced. The number of regular-season rounds has extended from 10 to 14 and still runs for roughly four months between October/November and February/March. If players want to continue playing year-round, they still only have two options: go overseas or play in the NPL.

Outside of Australia, Europe and the United States were the regions of choice for Australian players. Women's leagues had developed and collapsed over the years, but what tied all of them together was that the number of games played was relatively small, as was the amount of money that could be earned in a season. This meant that current and emerging Matildas had to develop a rhythm in their playing calendars: spend time at home in the W-League, then continue playing in an overseas league for the rest of the year.

As the women's game has slowly evolved, more top Australian players have opted into this back-to-back season rhythm. Not only has year-round football allowed them to stay fit and continue improving for potential national team duty, but also gradual increases to wages in these leagues has meant Aussies have been able to effectively earn a full-time salary playing football.

As Things Stand: the W-League/NWSL connection

These global shifts in the domestic game is how so many current Matildas have ended up playing in both Australia and the United States over the last half of the 2010s. When the NWSL was formed in 2012-13, the league season was scheduled to run between April and September. Eight teams played a total of 22 games with a two-week finals series. This calendar meant that Australian players could play in the NWSL and in the W-League with a small break in between seasons.

A number of current Matildas got their starts doing exactly this including Sam Kerr, Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord. In the years since, several more Matildas followed; falling into this same back-to-back season rhythm, earning more money, and enjoying more game-time against some of the best players in the world (almost every US women's national team player over the past two World Cups -- which the USA won both times -- played or continues to play in the NWSL). In total, 20 Australians have played in the NWSL since its inception, including all but six Matildas who went to the 2019 Women's World Cup.

From an Australian perspective, this league partnership has been beneficial in many ways. The Matildas' rise up the world rankings to an historic high of sixth coincided with more of them playing in the NWSL. The calendar synchronicity has also benefited the W-League, with many NWSL-based players including Lori Lindsey, Jess Fishlock, Kim Little, Natasha Dowie, and former FIFA World Player of the Year Nadine Angerer spending their American off-seasons in Australia. These international players have raised the standard of the W-League while also attracting a larger audience both at home and abroad.

But this partnership has become strained in recent years as both the W-League and the NWSL have gone through structural changes. Like the W-League, the NWSL now has nine teams after a series of clubs folded and others started elsewhere. The season has therefore expanded to 24 rounds instead of 22 (plus finals), which has meant the NWSL season window has widened to begin in April and end in October. As such, the NWSL has now begun to encroach on the W-League's season window and vice-versa. Players who've been working in both leagues now have less time in between seasons to recover from injuries, get surgery, or even just have some down-time. It also means players often enter preseasons late (or in the case of the W-League, not at all), meaning teams take several weeks to gel on the field. As we've seen in Australia over the years, this can have season-defining consequences with teams often out of finals contention after just a few early season losses. The W-League's four-month season window also means that by the time teams do find that chemistry, the season is basically already over.

The Rise of Europe

As the W-League and NWSL have developed this symbiotic relationship, European leagues have begun to emerge on the horizon as an alternative domestic avenue for players. Indeed, it's the rise of Europe that has spurned the W-League to formalise its ties with the US and form a type of year-round mega-league. At its foundation, this formalised partnership is based on player retention and commercial opportunities, with Football Federation Australia's Head of Leagues, Greg O'Rourke, saying that keeping the Matildas coming back to the W-League was a top priority.

So much for that.

For as this league partnership has tightened, many of the Matildas who have been working across both competitions have struggled with exhaustion and injury, to the point where it has affected national team performances (Australia currently sit ninth in the world ranking). It's little wonder, then, that many are turning their gaze to Europe; a continent with multiple, emerging women's leagues with lucrative franchises like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Lyon now investing in their women's teams.

Indeed, when Sam Kerr was asked about her move to this league with Chelsea late last year, she cited the need for a break and the opportunity to play a single season as factoring into her decision. Since then, several more Matildas have spoken publicly about the toll the back-to-back season schedule has taken on their minds and bodies. Europe finally offers them a choice to opt out of that cycle.

Case study: the FA Women's Super League

While there are players spread across the European continent, England in particular has become a magnet for Australian players in recent months. As an example of the shifts currently occurring in Europe more widely, it's worth breaking the league down into its various structural parts to better understand why so many Aussies are opting for it.

In 2018, the FAWSL became the first (and so far, only) fully professional, full-time women's competition in the world. Between 2011 and 2015, it expanded from eight to 12 teams while also introducing a promotion and relegation system. The season shifted from summer to winter in 2017 to align the FAWSL with the English Premier League, and its 22 rounds now take place between September and May (in contrast to the back-to-back summer seasons of the W-League and NWSL). However, FAWSL players are likely to play more games over the course of a season than their Australian or American counterparts thanks to the addition of two domestic cup competitions and the UEFA Women's Champions League, meaning a single FAWSL side can play anywhere between 25 and 50 games across all competitions. A player in the W-League/NWSL cycle, however, can only play a maximum of 38 games (neither of these include international duty). Exposure to more games from different divisions and different areas of the continent also means exposure to a larger variety of styles, systems, and cultures of football, which undoubtedly contributes to a player's overall ability and experience.

Of course, one of the biggest attractions of the FAWSL is financial. As a compulsory part of an FAWSL license, teams must guarantee a minimum 16-hour weekly contract for players as well as a youth academy. Although the league is fully professional, league wages can vary from a minimum of £20,000 (roughly AU$40,000) to £150,000 (almost AU$300,000) depending on what club a player is at (though an individual player can make triple their league salary depending on sponsorships, national team contracts, bonuses, etc). By comparison, the minimum W-League salary is AU$16,344, while the maximum an Australian can earn in the NWSL is around AU$60,000.

In addition to a larger number of games, full-time wages, promotion and relegation, and a winter season, the FAWSL also doesn't have an international player quota. The (somewhat problematic) result is that richer clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City can recruit a large number of international players (15, 13, and 9 respectively), almost all of whom represent their national teams. These environments are, by virtue of their squads, ultra-competitive, which can only improve Australian players for national team duty as well as domestic success.

In this wider structural context, it's clear to see why so many Matildas have opted for England in recent months. There are pros and cons to the FAWSL, of course, but given the W-League/NWSL system that so many Australian players have come from, a league like the FAWSL finally offers an alternative that will not damage their game-time, their bodies, or their hip-pockets. This same fully professional set-up is fast becoming the norm at many top clubs in other European nations like Italy, Spain, Germany, and France, where several Australian players have signed since August last year.

From the perspective of the W-League, then, Europe offers a look into a crystal ball; a glimpse of what Australia's top women's league could create. The FAWSL is (minus the winter season, promotion and relegation, and the international player quota) almost an exact replica of the A-League. While the W-League may not take every aspect of the FAWSL model on board, full professionalism in the domestic women's game is an inevitability. What Australian football must now decide is when and how it wants to get there, to ensure that this isn't the final chapter of what could be a much larger story.