Portland was the only place Christine Sinclair ever wanted to play.
When the National Women’s Soccer League launched in 2013, it was natural that Sinclair would gravitate to the Portland Thorns; she won a pair of NCAA titles at the University of Portland and she had a home in the Rose City.
Eleven seasons later, Sinclair is still rooted in Oregon.
“I’ve been very fortunate. When the NWSL formed, I made it clear to the people in power that Portland was the only city I was going to play in,” she said. “It’s my home and it will be my home forever. Being part of this organization through the ups and the downs, it’s been one of the great honors of my career.”
Sinclair is one of The Originals, the players who helped launch the league and are still with their same teams. The list also includes Tori Huster of the Washington Spirit and three players on OL Reign: Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes.
The longevity with a single team is in itself unusual in professional sports and now for college players due to the active transfer portal. But what makes it even more unique is that, at least in the early days, pay was paltry,
Salaries in the league’s first season ranged from just $6,000 a season to $30,000 for the elite players. Megan Rapinoe was paid in the early days by U.S. Soccer and Christine Sinclair was paid by Canada Soccer in an arrangement that allowed the league to have national-team players on NWSL rosters without the expense of those salaries.
Today, the average NWSL salary is $54,000, and players have a union and a collective bargaining agreement, which was adopted last year. The league became independent of U.S. Soccer in 2020.
“If I thought I was gonna still be here 11 years ago, I would probably say no,” Barnes said. “The way the league started off, there’s been huge improvements. There’s definitely a life and an opportunity to make this a lifestyle and a job — the last probably three to five years or so. So that’s really promising for the next generations to come and it’s been really fun to be a part of that and build that.”
There were two other attempts at women’s pro leagues in the United States. The first, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), was founded after the U.S. women won the World Cup in 1999 and lasted just three seasons, from 2001-2003. The second, Women’s Professional Soccer, folded in 2012 after two seasons.
Barnes, who played at UCLA, also played in the WPS. She was named the NWSL’s Defender of the Year in 2016.
Fishlock, who also plays for the Welsh national team, scored in the Reign’s second match in 2013. During her tenure in Seattle, she also played on loan to clubs around the world, including Frankfurt in Germany and French powerhouse Lyon, the Reign’s parent club.
“I’m not surprised that the league is not only still here, but in my opinion it is just about to thrive. It’s about to go. Foot on the pedal, it’s going,” Fishlock said. “I’m not surprised by that because there were such big steps at the beginning to really make sure that this league didn’t fail. And it was a real slow burner on that front and you look back now and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe that this is where we were.’ But we’re where we are now because we started so cautiously and so carefully because of the history of all the other leagues that have been here.”
While the league has steadily grown in its 11 seasons, there were periods of turbulence. In 2021 the NWSL was rocked by abuse and misconduct scandals that shook women’s soccer. Both U.S. Soccer and the NWSL commissioned investigations and now safeguards are being implemented leaguewide.
Looking forward, the NWSL and its 12 teams have big seasons ahead, and the Women’s World Cup this summer in Australia and New Zealand should bring new interest to the league and its many international players.
Sinclair is optimistic.
“I think from the onset, remember year one, you could see the potential. They started small, they started realistic, and slowly built,” she said. “Then I think after year two and year three, there’s no doubt that and this league’s going to be going on forever now. It’s only going to grow.”