The Portland Thorns finally announced the long rumored signing of French midfielder Amandine Henry today. While Henry will not join the team until after her contract with Lyon expires – which could mean June at the earliest and potentially not until after the Olympics – this is a significant signing not only for Portland but also for the league itself.
Henry is a player who is currently considered one of the world’s best, playing on one of the world’s best teams. The reality of the top European teams is they are in a position to be able to pay players significantly more than what they can earn in NWSL. While the terms of her contract with Lyon are not public, odds are she was earning six figures which, even with the difference in taxation between France and the United States, is much better than what she will earn in NWSL.
Henry becomes the first major international player to decide to forgo a bigger payday in Europe to come play in the United States. Yes, quality players like Kim Little, Jessica Fishlock and Andressa have opted to play in NWSL (or stay in NWSL) despite having strong interest in Europe and the ability to earn more there, but none of them had quite the panache of signing Henry when they first came to the league.
Does Henry’s signing suggest that we will see more high profile players coming to NWSL? Maybe, maybe not, but at least it sends a signal globally that other players will pay attention to. Players will look at the reasons why Henry and others might decide to come play in the United States.
While Henry’s motivation is not public yet, there are plenty of drivers that attract players to come this way. From discussion with some of the players who have chosen NWSL over Europe, those reasons range from a better quality of life living in the United States to a perception that the level of competition in the league is higher than the level found elsewhere.
This last point is viewed as highly contentious by many, but according to Seattle Reign manager Laura Harvey, it is a big part of the reason why players like Little and Fishlock opt to stay here. While there are teams in Europe that arguably are better than any NWSL team, something players with experience on both sides of the ocean say consistently is that they are not challenged week-to-week playing in Europe the way they are playing in NWSL.
Fact is, teams have to earn every single win here, and while competitiveness does not always equal better, the quality of the league across the board is such that this competitiveness does matter. The other thing players find helps them grow their game in NWSL is the pace and power of the game here. Europe is a slower and more technical style of play. Players get the ball, they have time to do something with it. In NWSL, you have to react much more quickly as you are not given the time and space to make decisions and move. As players adapt to that, it makes them better. If you can combine the technical side with quicker reaction and decision making and test that on a weekly basis, it makes for a dangerous combination.
For NWSL, in turn, adding more and more players with the technical skills of an Henry who can play with the ball at their feet and do the things she is capable of doing can only increase the level of play here. A rising tide lifts all ships, and as the level of play here improves and becomes more diverse with different styles of play, so too will the quality of players produced by the league improve.
Soon, Henry will arrive on these shores. She will be asked hundreds of times about why she made the decision to come. Players will read about this, they will look at it and consider her decision making drivers. They will watch how she fares here, they will ask her about her experiences. Not all will want to come as it is hard to walk away from more money, but even if the only the occasional Eugenie Le Sommer, Ji So-yun, Ada Hegerberg comes, it is good for the overall quality and international notoriety of the league.