Almost two months ago (has it been that long?) after FC Kansas City's game against the Chicago Red Stars, defensive midfielder Jen Buczkowski officially retired from the NWSL. That is an odd thing to say considering we were only five games into a 20 game season at that time.
If you are unfamiliar with the National Women's Soccer League then you may wonder if Buczkowski was injured or simply not good enough to be on the team. Well that's far from the truth. In fact in the three plus years that the NWSL has been a league, Buczkowski has played in every single game for FC Kansas City. No one else in the league is even close to Jen.
Although I haven't seen Buczkowski say it herself, I have a theory as to what is going on. The NWSL has an early retirement problem. Look no further than FC Kansas City and you'll see the problem. Jen Buczkowski is just 31-years-old. Many may not call that an early retirement. I'm 33-years-old and I'd love to be retired, but that simply isn't happening.
During the offseason FCKC lost Lauren Holiday (28-years-old), Leigh Ann Brown (29-years-old), Amy LePeilbet (34-years-old), Megan Lisenby (23-years-old) and midfielder Liz Bogus (32-years-old). Even Molly Dreska (28-years-old) is out of the league (though that was before this year). She told me she wasn't good enough, but I think there is another reason for all these ladies leaving in their prime (or before their prime).
That reason is money. The NWSL recently raised their salary cap as well as their minimum and maximum salaries. The salary cap is now $278,000 with the maximum salary moving from $37,800 (2015) to $39,700 and the minimum moved from $6,842 in 2015 to $7,200.
You read those figures correctly. I made more than the league minimum in my teens while not working a full-time job. If you don't think soccer is a full-time job (at least for the six months that the NWSL season is in effect) then you are kidding yourself. You have to train, practice, work out, eat correctly and a slew of other things to be a world-class athlete. If you don't think these women are world-class athletes then you are kidding yourself again.
The United States Women's National Team have all their players in this league, and while they are mostly better than the women around them, it's not like they dominate. I will say that the USWNT players are paid by US Soccer and make more than the league maximum of $39,700. So don't fret that Alex Morgan and Hope Solo are underpaid (though they are too, just on a different level than we are dealing with here).
The level of salaries in the league mean a good chunk of the players are under the poverty line. Obviously in the offseason many of these women have other jobs or play in other leagues, like Australia's W-League (which runs an opposite schedule to the NWSL).
As if the salaries aren't low enough, the league only has 20-women rosters. Obviously with injuries and international call-ups for the various national teams represented in the league, 20 women won't be enough to fill the 18-woman game day roster. That is why the NWSL allows 10 amateur players per team. That's 10 women that may be practicing with an NWSL team but they cannot be paid. The Oregonian had the following about Caroline Kastor from FCKC:
Caroline Kastor spent the first half of the 2015 season competing as an amateur player for FC Kansas City. Kastor, a graduate student and paid graduate assistant at the University of Kansas, lived near the university during her time as an amateur so that she could continue to study and work for an income. She would make the roughly 50-mile trip from Lawrence to Kansas City for practices and games.
When Kastor asked whether FC Kansas City could reimburse her for gas, they told her that they weren't allowed to under league rules. This was a surprise to Kastor. She, like most amateur players, did not have an agent when she started training with Kansas City and did not fully understand the details of the amateur player rule.
Now obviously Jen Buczkowski was a paid player. How much she was paid is unknown, but let's give FCKC the benefit of the doubt and say they paid her the league maximum of $39,700. That's not a bad wage, but most college educated adults make more than that. CNN says $45,478 is the average income for a first year college graduate. Most of the players in the NWSL had full college careers and one would assume most of them at least got their bachelor's degree (after all that is the greatest benefit for most people on soccer scholarships).
Buczkowski is actually going to be a physical therapist, so she stands to do even better. GlassDoor.com says that the average salary in Kansas City for a PT is $60,139 (and she could move, the national average is $66,180). Who can blame Buczkowski from moving on? She won't be young and fit enough to be a professional athlete forever.
What is sad is that if Buczkowski simply got a call-up to the National Team, her salary and marketability would have increased dramatically. With all the injuries in the defensive midfield the team could have used someone like Jen. That said, it shouldn't be necessary to earn a call-up to earn a living wage.
Now I don't blame the NWSL for this. It is already the most successful women's soccer league in American history having lasted into its fourth season. They didn't get there by being wasteful. They are trying to be profitable, it's just at the expense of the players while the league continues to grow.
If we look at their male counterparts in MLS, it is somewhat shocking. According to the MLS Players Association the minimum salary in 2007 was $12,900. That's 11 years into that leagues existence. Just last year the minimum finally climbed to $50,000 in MLS. That was 20 years to get to a decent wage (though still nothing compared to the other sports in the United States).
By comparison the NWSL is flying towards better pay. Until the league makes it to a higher level, early retirements will be something that is dealt with year in and year out. It's interesting being on the ground floor, but it's pretty tough for these women. So go out and support these pioneers and help the NWSL grow. Through your support it's possible the league will achieve what MLS has, or better, at a much faster pace.