Local soccer NWSL

Will Boston return to the women’s soccer table? NWSL wants ‘thoughtful’ expansion moving forward, commish says

When the Boston Breakers bowed out of the National Women’s Soccer League in January 2018, the league’s then-managing director, Amanda Duffy, stressed that the Boston market was one the league believed in and wanted to return to.

“It’s a brand that has a great historical reputation in women’s professional soccer,” Duffy had told The Associated Press at the time.

Suffice it to say, it’s been almost 31 months since that historical brand effectively disappeared into the ether and left Greater Boston’s die-hard soccer fans without top-flight women’s soccer; Duffy has since stepped away from the league. Into her place is new commissioner Lisa Baird, who has now led NWSL through the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic and became the first American sports league to get underway last month.

Sorry, alpha males: that’s just a damn fact, incontrovertible and all that.

Baird will also oversee the league’s first round of expansion in five years when the 2021 season rolls around, as Racing Louisville enters the league and becomes its current 10th team. The year following will see Angel City, a Los Angeles-based club unveiled by the league earlier this week, join as club No. 11.

So what about the sports-rich market of Boston the league’s former head purportedly believes in? What about the Breakers’ return?

While mentioning in her pre-NWSL Challenge Cup news conference Friday that the league is not done expanding given the rising popularity of the league, Baird stopped short of name-dropping prospective markets — as well as prospective owners — that could enter.

“I’ve been on record saying this: we want to be expanding thoughtfully,” she said, “in a way that helps us continue to make sure the standard of play in the National Women’s Soccer League continues to grow. Anything we do will be guided by these principles: No. 1, it’s got to be an attractive market, and I have said repeatedly, it doesn’t mean it has to be a large market.

“No. 2, it has to be the right ownership. I think for us, we have a diversity of ownership. We have teams that own USL teams, we have teams that own MLS teams, teams that are independent. The diversity and quality of ownership is really important to us. And the third one is, where does it make sense to go in relation to what is happening in sports? I don’t have as clear a principle on that, but I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a lot of innovation in terms of how fans experience the game.”

Boston soccer fans have been without top-flight women’s soccer since January 28, 2018, when a prospective new ownership group for the Breakers — a team that had played in the Commonwealth in various forms and leagues since 2001 — had backed out at the eleventh hour, leaving the Breakers staff, its fans, and its players — including its four drafts picks, selected 10 days prior — in limbo. The team was dissolved, dropping the league to nine clubs, its current number even after shuffling a couple of teams to different markets.

The league had added two clubs — Houston in 2014, Orlando in 2016 — in the years after the league rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2012, but from the Breakers’ demise until last October’s announcement of Racing Louisville’s entrance in 2021, the league stood pat.

In the interim, fans have had two second-tier pro-am women’s soccer clubs in Massachusetts, with the closest to Boston being the Worcester Smiles. Worcester plays at Historic Foley Stadium on Chandler Street.

In addition, there are the New England Mutiny, based in Ludlow at Lusitano Stadium. Both play in United Women’s Soccer’s eight-team East Conference.