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Why haven’t Arsenal Women signed USWNT players?

Player movement to the FAWSL has set expectations high—so why haven’t Arsenal participated?

Arsenal Women v Reading Women: Barclays FA WSL Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

This summer’s FA WSL transfer window ended with a bang on Friday, when it was reported by The Athletic that USWNT striker Alex Morgan would make a short-term move to Tottenham Hotspur. Assuming the deal goes through, Morgan would be the fifth USWNT player to move to the WSL in the last month, and the thirteenth overall. The thirteen players have signed a variety of deals. Some are short-term loans, such as Rachel Daly’s move to West Ham, Denise O’Sullivan’s move to Brighton, and Rachel Corsie’s loan to Birmingham City, and some, like Morgan, are short-term contracts. Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Rose Lavelle, and Sam Mewis all signed one year contracts at Manchester United and Manchester City. As USSF contracted players, and thus allocated players to the NWSL, they cannot be loaned.

The biggest reason for all of these moves is coronavirus. In comparison with western Europe, the United States has horrifically mismanaged the pandemic. To have a one-month tournament, the NWSL had to bubble their players, much like MLS did in Orlando, and like the NBA is doing now. But while the NBA is finishing last season, and MLS is continuing the season with limited travel, the NWSL Challenge Cup, plus four games between September 5 and October 17, constitutes the entire season.

For many players, with the Olympics next year, going a full year playing fewer than fifteen games was unacceptable, and there wasn’t much appetite to bubble again. Europe, then, became an option for many players, as it offered some predictable game-time, especially in the first half of 2021, leading up to the Olympics. Neither you nor I can accurately predict if sports in America will be viable in the spring, and that’s a huge gamble. While it is possible to see disruption in Europe, they at least have pulled it off, without having to bubble players for months on end, which is tough on players’ well-being.

That has meant that the moves are short-term. In regards to Arsenal, as Tim Stillman pointed out on Twitter, that is incompatible with Arsenal’s longer-term transfer strategy. The moves that Arsenal made this summer have been planned for a long-time. In an interview, Steph Catley said that Joe Montemurro had wanted to bring her to Arsenal for some time. Essentially, Arsenal plan signings well in-advance to fit into a longer term plan and project. Montemurro made two signings to address the severe injury crisis during the 2018/19 season: Janni Arnth and Katrine Veje. Arnth left after 6 months; Veje left this past summer.

Chelsea also didn’t sign anyone from the NWSL, and like Arsenal, Emma Hayes has a long-term plan. The club signed Pernille Harder this summer, which is a move that was brought forward, as Chelsea had been expected to sign her next summer when her contract expired.

The clubs that have raided the NWSL are in a position where their plans aren’t as set. Manchester City, for example, are essentially at the beginning of a new cycle, with a new head coach in Gareth Taylor. Signing Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle give City a chance to win the league this season and win the Champions League, essentially accelerating the project. Adding Tobin Heath and Christen Press give Manchester United the possibility of breaking into the top 3 and qualifying for the Champions League, and even if they don’t, Press and Heath give the club, in its third season, credibility, and can make it a destination for other top players. For these clubs, and for those looking to strengthen their league position, such as Reading, West Ham and Tottenham, the potential short term nature of these moves make sense.

For Arsenal, though, it makes less sense. It means adding players and re-adjusting the side to fit players in. And, it’s quite likely that these players, especially the USWNT players, will not be in the WSL next season. Americans generally like playing in America, and there are also contractual details with USSF to sort out, with a limited number allowed to play outside of the United States.

And, ultimately, three of Arsenal’s last six signings are players who had played in the NWSL, in Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley, and Lydia Williams. But in all three, there is an expectation that they will remain for some time, something that cannot be guaranteed by the NWSL’s temporary exodus.