2024 NWSL ambition rankings: Which teams lead the way?

The National Women’s Soccer League‘s 11th regular season kicks off this weekend, and progress appears to be prevalent at every turn. Expansion interest and fees are booming, new media partners make the league more accessible than ever, and clubs are paying world-record transfer fees for players.

Growth is hardly ever linear, however, and in the NWSL’s case, the collective doesn’t entirely represent the individual clubs. The NWSL, like many leagues, has long had a clear division between the teams that are haves and have-nots. The balance of power has shifted over time, and the group of ambitious teams and owners is larger than ever. While the NWSL is setting new standards as a collective, who is leading that charge? We’ve set out to define how ambitious each of the 14 NWSL teams is in a semi-scientific way, looking at major categories on and off the field.

This general idea is inspired by the late Grant Wahl, who created his popular “Ambition Rankings” to measure the MLS teams leading the pack vs. those coasting. He was an early advocate of the women’s game in mainstream media, and these rankings are in no way meant to replace what he might have done similarly for the NWSL. Instead, our hope is that using this concept honors him while providing a deeper look at the NWSL as a whole.

-Live on ABC/ESPN+: KC Current vs. Portland Thorns (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

Our approach is a points system for each category that gives this list some structure beyond just subjective feelings. No doubt, there is a level of subjectivity involved here, particularly in breaking ties to land on a numerical ranking, but the points allow for an aggregated score to be compared between teams. We ranked teams in each category from 1 to 5, with 1 being poor, 5 being best-in-class, and 3 being average. They are:

1. Willingness to spend on players
2. Willingness to spend on stadium and training facilities
3. Creativity, innovation and willingness to try something new
4. Clear long-term vision for club
5. Staffing investment, on and off field
6. Local media market relevance and attendance

Some necessary context: Several teams have just completed ownership or governance changes this offseason, meaning there is clear transition afoot, but it is too early to know exactly what that means. A similar theory applies to the two expansion teams, Bay FC and Utah Royals FC.

With that out of the way, which NWSL teams are the most ambitious? Which teams have work to do to catch up?


Saturday marks the opening of CPKC Stadium, the first stadium built specifically for an NWSL team. Most of the roughly $120 million construction cost was privately funded by owners Angie and Chris Long, as was the $18 million training complex that opened two years ago. There is nothing else like it in the world, let alone the NWSL.

Kansas City’s stadium spurs further economic growth and opportunities for the team, from full control over vendors and sponsors (and the controversial parking prices) to earning revenue from non-game events. Facilities for both gamedays and day-to-day training are the biggest infrastructure challenge in the league, and Kansas City is in a class of its own.

The Current earn high marks for creativity and local relevance for attempts to become part of the fabric of the city, from branding a downtown streetcar (which will get its own stop at the stadium in the future) to partnerships with local landmark destinations and iconic local brands. By all accounts, Kansas City is also on the front line of pushing for a more organized youth development pipeline in the NWSL.

On the field, the Current went out and hired Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, which might seem obvious given his ties to the city, but likely represents a significant financial investment. Regardless of last year’s tumultuous World Cup campaign, Andonvski is a former U.S. national team coach and one of the most successful coaches in NWSL history. Kansas City also invested in international players, including Brazilian star Debinha, and up-and-coming youth internationals. Kansas City was poor on the field last year, with injuries playing a role, and that needs to improve. The biggest teams in the world win trophies, after all.

If there’s an area of concern on the player front, it’s multiple instances of former players speaking publicly about their frustrations with abrupt trades, as with forward Cece Kizer recently.

Regardless, there is clear ambition and a plan in Kansas City, backed by partnerships and superior facilities, which give them the tiebreaker on points to top this list.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 5
Creativity: 4
Long-term vision: 5
Staffing: 4
Local relevance: 4

Total: 26/30


Had we ranked teams in the previous two seasons, Angel City would have been atop the list. Landing second by way of a tiebreaker is still no small feat.

Angel City deserves credit for resetting the narrative of what it means to be a women’s soccer or women’s sports team. Club ownership, which includes dozens of celebrity minority investors, sank serious money into staffing and operations to make sure the team was treated like a major professional sports team. It paid immediate dividends, with over 15,000 season tickets sold before the team ever kicked a ball. A staff of roughly 100 people is multiples more than the historical standard in the NWSL, and further proof that you must spend money to make money.

Angel City’s innovative sponsorship approach, which requires all sponsors to allocate 10% back to the local community, is also tied to the team’s clear long-term vision. Angel City’s entry into the league and sports ecosystem came at the perfect moment as a purpose-driven brand.

On-field results have been a mixed bag in the team’s two seasons of existence, but the facilities are the main knock against Angel City, which creates a rich dichotomy with co-leader Kansas City. The team’s training facility is 50 miles from its stadium and is a pain point for players. Team president Julie Uhrman says they want to build a dedicated training facility within the next three years, but until then, it’s an unfulfilled need.

BMO Stadium is a first-class facility and arguably the best in the league in a vacuum, especially since it’s normally mostly full, with an average of nearly 20,000 fans. The catch, however, is that Angel City is not the primary tenant and faces significant scheduling restrictions. The team’s 2024 opener will take place on Sunday against Bay FC — the match was originally scheduled for Saturday but rescheduled only three weeks before the season “due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict.” The conflict: Exposition Park is hosting a couple of non-soccer events on Saturday around the Stadium.

We’re still giving Angel City a 4 for facilities because of how great the experience is at a sold-out BMO Stadium, but the scheduling issues combined with the training facilities struggles need to be addressed. These are the growing pains of the NWSL, even among the best and most ambitious teams.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 4
Creativity: 4
Long-term vision: 5
Staffing: 5
Local relevance: 4

Total: 26/30


The Wave led the NWSL in attendance in 2023 with over 20,000 fans per game and, at times, filled the 32,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium. Team ownership bid on and successfully hosted the grandest NWSL Championship week to date (although the Wave didn’t play in it). The Stadium is a gem, despite valid concerns about the playing surface, highlighted by last week’s USA-Canada swamp game in the Gold Cup. Its central location, next to a dedicated stop on the city’s light-rail system, aids in the team’s efforts to be locally relevant.

On the field, the Wave found immediate success, putting together the best expansion season in NWSL history in 2022, when the team led the league for half the season, and they won the NWSL Shield last year. San Diego made immediate big moves in the buildup to its first season, acquiring U.S. internationals Alex Morgan and Abby Dahlkemper among its first signings. The decision to draft defender Naomi Girma first overall was a short- and long-term victory, and head coach Casey Stoney has already left her mark on the league. Attracting her to spearhead the project in 2021 was no small feat. Amid growing external interest, San Diego just extended Stoney’s contract through 2027 with an option for 2028.

The Wave have also done some big business, more quietly than their frenemies to the north in Los Angeles. They have big sponsors in different categories, as one would expect from any team, but they’ve also finally figured out merchandise (and get a bump in the creativity score for it). The new, vibrant “Del Sol” kit smashed a club record for jersey sales in a day and is believed to have set a single-day kit sales record in the NWSL. After two years of boring kits, the Wave finally look the part of being San Diego cool, which furthers their mark on the local culture. Winning helps, too — especially in that market.

As with Angel City, there are some facility concerns to monitor. The Wave have found it similarly difficult to close on the land needed to build their own training facility. The team still trains over 20 miles north of the city in an adopted space (like Angel City’s setup) and the drive from downtown can be a minor nightmare on the infamous I-5. The impending arrival of an MLS team at Snapdragon Stadium next year, and that team’s claim to scheduling priority, adds a level of concern to a very good stadium setup.

San Diego was one part of the two-headed 2022 expansion monster that reset expectations across the league. Angel City drew most of the global headlines, but the Wave are part of the push forward.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 4
Creativity: 4
Long-term vision: 4
Staffing: 4
Local relevance: 4

Total: 24/30


One rival team employee summarized the Washington Spirit this way: “Everything they want to do is big, big, big. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

There is no question that the plans of Spirit owner Michele Kang are unlike anything we’ve seen before. She said she would buy multiple women’s teams to create a conglomerate that leverages resources at scale, and she already backed that up by purchasing Lyon and London City Lionesses. Washington was her first team and will serve as the hub of this growing global enterprise.

Kang’s plans include a new, state-of-the-art training facility in or near Washington, D.C., which is a major real estate and political challenge (notice a trend?). The Spirit score points for that vision, although they are docked points for their current training setup, which is an improvement from a few years ago when players felt “homeless,” but is still a temporary solution. Audi Field is a modern stadium with some flaws that draws a respectable crowd on most nights (10,000-plus on average in 2023).

The Spirit lured Jonatan Giráldez away from FC Barcelona in the splashiest head-coaching hire in NWSL history, that likely came with a large price tag. Giráldez’s hire alone is a signal of intent, but his impending arrival will also attract world-class players and further legitimize the NWSL as a destination league. He also further boosts a technical and performance staff that sets the bar for player wellness.

Washington’s attempt to go big has come with some bumps in the road, and that’s where the long-term vision comes into play. They want to be the best club in the world — a ubiquitous refrain of late — but what that looks like remains slightly unclear. Former head coach Mark Parsons was fired after only one season of what was expected to be a long-term project. Club stalwarts Ashley Sanchez and Sam Staab were traded away on draft day in January. Even the club’s visual identity is in its second season of limbo amid a drawn-out rebrand.

The stated ambition in D.C. is clear, but the execution isn’t quite on par with the best in the league yet.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 3
Creativity: 4
Long-term vision: 4
Staffing: 5
Local relevance: 4

Total: 24/30


Bay FC set a world record last month by paying €735,000 (with $75,000 in possible add-ons) for Zambian forward Racheal Kundananji. The team, aided by extra cash afforded to expansion sides, has spent over $1 million on transfers before kicking a ball, including to lure Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala from Barcelona, and Venezuelan playmaker Deyna Castellanos from Manchester City.

When people talk about how the NWSL set a new bar and won the winter transfer window, they are pointing to Bay FC as the trend-setters. Kundananji had a buyout clause that teams globally couldn’t or wouldn’t pay until Bay FC came along and changed the narrative.

The immediate spending on players backs up the vision laid out by Alan Waxman, CEO of Sixth Street Partners, the majority owner of Bay FC. Waxman & Co. and how they see women’s soccer as big business and a great investment, much like a startup. They’ve committed to sinking funds into the team on and off the field, including the construction of temporary upgrades to the current training facility and plans to build a bespoke facility in the future. PayPal Park in San Jose has its critics, but it’s a relatively new, soccer-specific stadium that should be among the best in the league — if it’s full.

With Bay FC debuting this season, local relevance is still TBD, which is why we’ve given an average score as a placeholder. There’s interest in the Bay Area, but it’s yet unclear what the stadium will look like on gamedays.

The team’s branding smartly takes aim at the casual fan, a demographic the entire league needs to target if it is to grow. Bay FC’s script-style “B” is designed to create an instantly recognizable brand, with a clear objective of selling merchandise. There’s a nod to the Golden Gate Bridge, but as a standalone “B” it feels more like a baseball team, and specifically the Detroit Tigers’ “D” logo. The team’s name itself was met with some mixed feelings, too.

This is another team with the stated intention of being the best in the world. Whether things come together on the field immediately will be determined in the coming months, but they’ve already put their money where their collective mouth is. Any minor qualms about branding will be forgotten if Bay FC is successful.

Player spend: 5
Facilities: 4
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 4
Staffing: 4
Local relevance: 3

Total: 23/30


From the time the NWSL first kicked off in 2013 up through 2021, the Portland Thorns stood in their own class of ambition and success. There was Portland and everyone else.

The Thorns averaged over 13,000 fans per game in that inaugural season 11 years ago, while no other team broke 5,000. The culture in Portland was just different, and everyone wanted to copy it. In a city that already loved soccer thanks to the decades-old Timbers brand, and only one NBA team competing in the pro sports landscape, the Thorns became part of the fabric of Portland. Such was their financial success relative to the other NWSL teams that former owner Merritt Paulson shared team revenue as the league and teams navigated losses.

The Thorns are still popular and locally relevant, but they have been surpassed by newer teams in several categories. A passionate fan base has been at odds with Paulson over the past three years following allegations of sexual misconduct against Thorns ex-head coach Paul Riley, due to the role Paulson and other club executives had in protecting Riley, which allowed Riley to continue coaching for years.

Paulson finally agreed to sell the team in late 2022 and a lengthy process closed in Jan. 2024. RAJ Sports, led by Lisa Bhathal Merage and Alex Bhathal, paid an NWSL record $63 million for the team.

Lisa Bhathal Merage is the team’s new governor, and she and her brother committed to building the Thorns a dedicated training facility as part of the sale. The Thorns need it. The buy-in alone suggests the Bhathals have a vision to make the Thorns even bigger, but it’s too early to draw any conclusions, and they will need to navigate a year of complicated transitions. The Timbers and Thorns shared staff and resources, which was part of what made it difficult to determine the NWSL team’s value.

Portland can absolutely return to the glory days based on its incredible market presence alone — not to mention they are perennial on-the-field contenders and won the 2022 league title — but it will be another year of transition that will require some patience in the Rose City, at least from a business perspective.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 3
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 4
Staffing: 3
Local relevance: 5

Total: 22/30


Racing Louisville might never be able to shake off the stigma that it’s a small market, but it boasts plenty of what the best teams aspire to have.

Racing arguably had the best combined facilities in the league prior to Kansas City’s new digs opening. Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville is a beautiful, soccer-specific stadium that opened in 2020, and there is a training complex down the road that is split 50-50 with the men’s USL team. There’s even an on-site cafeteria for players to utilize, and most of them live nearby, avoiding the league trend of daily treks across metropolitan areas.

Louisville is still a relatively new team as a 2021 expansion side, but already dealt with some dark times following the details of former head coach Christy Holly’s alleged sexual misconduct. It has taken time for Racing to become appealing to players following those harrowing incidents, and the 2023 hirings of general manager Ryan Dell, who joined from an administrative role with the U.S. women’s national team, and Bev Yanez — now the team’s head coach — further improved the appeal of Louisville.

Racing has spent on players, too, including involvement in some major deals with Mexico powerhouse Tigres for incoming and outgoing transfers. Last year’s acquisition of Nigerian forward Uchenna Kanu from Tigres for $150,000 plus incentives was a record at the time for a deal between the two leagues. Then in December, Racing transferred South African forward Thembi Kgatlana to Tigres for $275,000.

Racing fell short in pursuit of some free agents this offseason. Was it because the team is still unproven on the field, with a first-time head coach taking over? Were the off-field factors significant? Or, was it just that other teams were more appealing? Any of those answers show room for improvement in perception. Quietly, though, Louisville has been doing a lot right.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 5
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 4
Local relevance: 3

Total: 22/30


Historically, the Orlando Pride has struggled to get out of its own way, from inconsistency on the field to off-field issues, like the debacle around being left out of the 2020 Challenge Cup. Each time they appeared to turn the corner, there was a new setback.

That history informs a level of hesitance with heaping praise on the Pride, but it does appear that the team is finally on a steady upward trajectory. Orlando was a difficult, even if inconsistent team to beat last year, and they should be better in 2024. New Pride general manager Haley Carter has spearheaded an influx of international talent — and added to those ranks by facilitating expedited green cards for some players – including a transfer for Zambian forward Barbra Banda. The $740,000 transfer fee was second in global history only to what Bay FC paid for Kundananji, and the roughly $2.1 all-in commitment to Banda over four years makes her one of the highest-paid players in the NWSL.

The effort is clearly there to continue improving on the field. Off the field is a work in progress, too. Orlando has struggled at the gate historically, typically playing games in front of a sea of purple seats. The Pride’s poor record through the years did not help, but with star power that included Alex Morgan and (still) Marta through the years, the inability to draw fans was always concerning.

Owner and chairman Mark Wilf has steadily made increased investments to improve that situation, including a round of stadium upgrades that were completed ahead of the 2024 season that are meant to enhance the fan experience. Orlando drew just over 6,000 fans per game last year, ranking eighth of 12 teams. Securing local media attention is an added challenge in a market better known as a family vacation destination than a hardcore sports town.

One thing the Pride consistently gets right is its branding and engagement. Orlando has long been a league leader in social media engagement, and the Pride’s kits have been an annual hit, oozing with style and great storytelling over the past few years. The big question: When will that translate in the stands?

There remains significant work to be done, but to the Pride’s credit, the team has adapted and pivoted to keep pace. A clear sign of that is acquiring Banda after a pursuit of U.S. international Crystal Dunn fell through. An influx of Brazilian talent has the team calling itself “Orlando de Janeiro,” which could make it entertaining and appealing to a more general sports crowd. Time will tell.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 3
Creativity: 5
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 4
Local relevance: 2

Total: 21/30


If you expected the defending NWSL champions, in the country’s biggest media market, to be higher on this list… you’re right, they should be, but there’s a long way to go.

Cracking the greater New York City market has been difficult, even as the team has tried a two-pronged approach with the hardcore soccer demographic and the casual crowd. Gotham has plenty of talented players with personality to market, but crowds at Red Bull Arena generally remain an eyesore.

There might not be a more difficult market to solve than New York, but LA is up there, albeit differently, and Angel City has shown it’s possible. Part of Gotham’s challenge has been putting the past — including the club’s troubled Sky Blue FC era — behind it. Although the PATH train runs from lower Manhattan to a stop roughly across the street (on a decent walk) from Red Bull Arena, the perception remains that the stadium is not convenient to get to (this writer can attest it isn’t fun to drive to, either). Gotham’s “NJ/NY” branding makes a formal play at both markets, but it is unclear just how much that has resonated.

There are signs of encouragement. Carolyn Tisch Blodgett, of the Tisch family that owns the NFL’s New York Giants, joined as a minority investor last season and brings fresh ideas from a major-league setting. Her presence on the NWSL’s Board of Governors is a tangible indication that, although she is a minority owner and strategic investor, she’s tasked with making significant changes.

On the field, Gotham has gone from strength to strength, winning the title last season and winning the free agency lottery by signing arguably the four biggest names available: U.S. internationals Rose Lavelle, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, and Emily Sonnett. Head coach Juan Carlos Amoros and former player-turned-general manager Yael Averbuch West have prioritized making Gotham a place that players want to be, which is the opposite of the team’s historical standing.

The potential is there, but there are some long-term questions to answer about facilities. Should Gotham be making a call to New York City FC about moving to Queens in a few years, when the MLS team opens its stadium? That question will linger, especially if things don’t change at Red Bull Arena. There’s a lot to like on the field in New Jersey, and a lot of things to still figure out away from it.

Player spend: 5
Facilities: 3
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 4
Local relevance: 2

Total: 20/30


“Return to Royalty” is the catchphrase in Utah as the Royals franchise rises from the ashes of a short and complicated first run in the NWSL from 2018-2020. There is work to be done to be considered royalty.

The former Royals team was one of the best supported NWSL markets in its brief history, which in many ways salvaged the league at a time when multiple franchises were in folding. Former Royals and Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen stepped up in late 2017 to rush along an expansion team, including construction projects like carving out space in the stadium for the Royals on short notice, at a time when the NWSL was teetering. Eventually, though, Hansen was forced out of the NWSL and MLS amid allegations of harassment and a toxic work environment, and the Royals folded.

play

1:13

NWSL commissioner plans to expand to 16 teams by 2026

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman speaks to Seb Salazar about extending the league’s number of participating teams to 16 by 2026.

Now, the Royals return as a new expansion team under owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, who took over Real Salt Lake from Hansen. While the first Royals team was flashy, this new one looks underwhelming thus far. Roster composition is not everything on this list, but Utah disappoints by failing to take advantage of an extra transfer budget afforded only to expansion teams. Bay FC showed what was possible in a starkly different approach, but Utah is decidedly playing it conservatively. The team will be led by former Royals player Amy Rodriguez, who is in her first head-coaching position of any kind after a brief stint as an assistant coach at USC.

Facilities remain a strong point, from the team’s stadium to a newly announced multi-million dollar expansion of the training facility to give the Royals their own home. Co-owner Ryan Smith has a proven track record with the Utah Jazz and should bring fresh ideas to the market and the league.

On and off the field, Royals 2.0 is tasked with proving that they can still hang with the best in an NWSL that is very different from the league they left in late 2020.

Player spend: 2
Facilities: 4
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 3
Local relevance: 4

Total: 19/30


Like a mom-and-pop shop that bought back its licensing from a big-box store, the NWSL’s best branding has been restored. Seattle Reign FC is back after a few years of French oversight that made the team feel like a Lyon satellite, complete with the awkward “OL Reign” name that has now been shed. That’s an instant upgrade, and it comes with new (and oddly yet-to-be-confirmed) ownership backed by the Seattle Sounders, which is a major development for a team that has long been in need of local ownership and stadium solutions.

Lumen Field — the Sounders’ and Seattle Seahawks’ home — is also the Reign’s full-time home, and crowds showed signs of improvement but the 68,000-seat stadium still looked cavernous. Direct ties to the Sounders won’t instantly double the Reign’s respectable average of over 13,000 fans, but it should help create a greater crossover between fan bases and, at minimum, increase marketing efforts.

The dragging on of the sale process has made life difficult for the franchise. Megan Rapinoe retired, and Lavelle and Sonnett both left for Gotham via free agency. The Reign struggled to attract (and perhaps, in the uncertainty, couldn’t commit to paying) major free agents this offseason, and that will pose a great challenge to a historically strong team that reached the league final for the third time last year.

Seattle has historically been known as a place players want to be, which is aided by head coach Laura Harvey and the culture she has built there in two different stints since the team’s inception in late 2012. The Reign’s core values remain in its local partnerships and the grassroots marketing efforts, which earns the team creativity points. There is work to be done to create stability after years of stadium moves and brand changes.

Tied on points with the next team on this list, the Reign get the tiebreaker on the benefit of doubt that new ownership is about to bring an influx of investment.

Player spend: 3
Facilities: 3
Creativity: 4
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 3
Local relevance: 2

Total: 18/30


North Carolina has historically enjoyed success on the field. Off the field, there has been a lingering question about the market’s ability to keep pace, especially considering the demand for expansion teams far outweighs the immediately available slots. Those were more hypothetical questions a few years ago, but in today’s booming NWSL economy, they are real and pressing issues for the Courage.

WakeMed Soccer Park is the original stadium built for a women’s soccer team, but it was constructed over 20 years ago and is more utilitarian than any of the modern soccer stadiums. The size is just right for an NWSL team right now if it can be filled regularly, but North Carolina had the second-worst average attendance in the NWSL last year, and it wasn’t really an anomaly.

Team executives have taken strides to improve the gameday experience, including completely overhauling the food offerings and creating a march to the match on a pathway from growing business district, but the stadium is in Cary, outside of Raleigh, reminiscent of the early, suburban MLS stadiums that have proven to not be long-term successes. From locations to amenities, WakeMed just isn’t what the modern fan experience demands. Courage owners had pitched a downtown Raleigh soccer stadium years ago, but that project stalled and remains uncertain at best.

A positive for the Courage is that the stadium is surrounded by spectacular training fields that sit in the shadow of the stands. That’s a huge plus in a league filled with teams struggling to find solutions for this, and it makes life easier for the players, too.

Creativity has been a challenge in North Carolina, from merchandise — the Courage finally have something unique for a kit this year — to marketing solutions that increase the relevance of the team.

On the field, the Courage played some of the best soccer in the league in 2023 and appear to have settled into an identity under head coach Sean Nahas. Players — and the club at large — have finally turned the page from a tumultuous couple of years in which North Carolina, previously coached by the disgraced Paul Riley, was the epicenter of the NWSL’s reckoning with abuse. A strong on-field brand has attracted talent like German international fullback Felicitas Rauch, and the addition of U.S. attacker Ashley Sanchez could do wonders for the Courage. The reigning MVP, Kerolin, is in North Carolina, too, although her late 2023 ACL tear means she’ll miss most of this season.

Baby steps have been evident, but it’s still unclear from a business perspective if North Carolina can keep pace with the rapid investments being made across the league.

Player spend: 3
Facilities: 4
Creativity: 2
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 3
Local relevance: 3

Total: 18/30


What is Houston’s long-term plan? That’s been hard to figure out through the years on and off the field. Only a few years ago, there were serious questions about the market’s staying power in the league. Those have subsided, and were signs of growth in 2022, but the Dash ranked 10th of 12 teams in attendance in 2023 and endured a weird season on the pitch in which first-year head coach Sam Laity was fired with a few weeks remaining in the season. Staff instability adds further concern.

Locally, the Dash have struggled to make a foothold in the market despite a relatively appealing stadium and location. The problem isn’t unique to the Dash — the Houston Dynamo, which shares a stadium and ownership group, ranked last in MLS in attendance last year. Each team has faced various struggles through the years regardless of on-field performance.

There are positive signs of investment, including a $1.5 million contract for Maria Sanchez (if the fourth-year option and bonuses are triggered) that set a league record in December. The record was soon surpassed, but it was a sign of intent for the Dash. Houston is also one of many NWSL teams that invests in traveling to multiple destinations for preseason, which is becoming the norm in this league.

Still, four years ago, the Dash publicly declared the adage of “Same Old Dash” — alluding to their historical issues — was dead after lifting the 2020 Challenge Cup. Consistency has not followed on or off the field, however. The jury is still out on what the new Dash aim to be.

Player spend: 4
Facilities: 4
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 2
Staffing: 2
Local relevance: 2

Total: 17/30


The Red Stars arrive last on our list, but let’s be upfront that this is largely the doing of previous owner Arnim Whisler, whose sale to new majority owner Laura Ricketts was finalized late last year. There is a lot of positivity around what Ricketts will do for this team in the long term. When the sale went through, she promised to invest $25 million into immediate upgrades for the team — and those were desperately needed.

The issue, as Ricketts knew heading into the sale, was that the Red Stars were so underfunded for so long that what sounds like a huge amount of money was really just needed to get Chicago to a respectable state: increased staffing, a better team headquarters, upgrades to the existing training setup. The Red Stars lost years, stuck in uncertainty as Whisler held onto the team and was eventually forced out for his enablement of alleged abuse by former head coach Rory Dames.

Ricketts’ task is significant: SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, is in a terrible location, as the Chicago Fire eventually found out after getting it built in 2006, and there are no immediate or obvious solutions for a better home field. Ricketts and her team have already thrown their name into the lobbying that other local teams are doing for new facilities, and that shows ambition that wasn’t there in the previous regime.

Ricketts, mind you, is from the Ricketts family, which owns MLB’s Chicago Cubs. That’s a major-league presence that could go a long way for a Red Stars team that was always treated small-time.

The Red Stars finished last in the NWSL in 2023 and lost several stars to free agency. Their saving grace is the return of Mallory Swanson, both from injury and as a free agent who signed what her agents called the most lucrative deal in NWSL history. New head coach Lorne Donaldson has work to do, and he’ll be doing it with a roster of players trying to get to know each other given all the turnover. Defenders Sam Staab and Natalia Kuikka are strong and welcome additions, but there’s a lot to figure out still on this roster. The exodus of former players and the slow rebuild are an environment that was previously unappealing and untenable. Ricketts, by all accounts, improved that part immediately, but rebuilding the roster will take time.

The only way to go is up in Chicago. Ricketts knows that, and Chicago’s placement on this list is not a reflection on her or the new ownership group, but the situation they’ve inherited. Their task now is finding solutions.

Player spend: 3
Facilities: 2
Creativity: 3
Long-term vision: 3
Staffing: 3
Local relevance: 2

Total: 15/30