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Savvy earlier moves enabled OL Reign’s big summer signings

A series of small moves added up to big allocation money haul.

South Korea v Canada Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

With OL Reign’s recent high-profile signings of Tobin Heath and Jordyn Huitema, along with a short-term loan of Kim Little from Arsenal, there has again been speculation from fans of other teams that the Reign must somehow be cheating the system to fit everyone on their roster, perhaps thanks to some under-the-table financial support from their parent organization OL Groupe. But these accusations belie just how savvy the club has been with trades and transfers over the past year, amassing a substantial war chest which they have been able to use to great effect during the summer transfer window.

Before we get into the details of the earlier moves they’ve made, we should first look briefly at the current NWSL salary cap structure and how that changed with the signing of the league’s first collective bargaining agreement at the start of the year. To start, teams now have a base salary cap of $1.1 million to work with. That’s up significantly from 2021’s cap of $650k, albeit with USWNT players no longer allocated and now signed directly by their clubs. For the Reign, that means Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle are now under contract with the club and likely have significant wages which count toward the cap for the first time (Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta were already directly signed with the Reign prior to this season.) Beyond those two, there was a fairly substantial boost to salaries across the board, so most (if not all) of that additional $450,000 in cap space was likely accounted for from the beginning of the year.

However, clubs have access to additional resources in the form of allocation money, which they can use to cover player wages above the $75k salary maximum and buy down cap hits, offer in trades, and pay transfer fees. Importantly, all transfer fees must be paid exclusively using allocation money; no outside funds can be used. Each NWSL team has the ability to buy $500,000 in allocation money this season, and any unused money purchased or acquired in trades in prior seasons can be carried forward to the current year. This is where OL Reign has particularly shined – in addition to their own haul, they’ve made a number of trades which vastly increased their treasury. Here are the moves the club has made since the end of last season which have added to their allocation money:

That’s $245k in additional allocation money, plus another $15k coming next year. However, the club also spent some of that money in trades and transfers ahead of the season:

  • They traded $40k and a 2023 first-round pick to Gotham FC in exchange for the 8th overall draft pick this year, which was used to select Zsani Kajan (the Reign also recouped some of that money when they transferred Kajan to ACF Fiorentina on Monday for an undisclosed fee.)
  • They traded $30k and a 2023 third-round pick to Houston for Veronica Latsko.

So in total, the club gained a net of at least $175k in allocation money prior to making their big moves this summer. For the right to sign Heath, they sent Louisville $50k along with a pair of 2023 draft picks. We don’t have details on the transfer fee paid by the Reign to PSG for Huitema, but we can get some hints thanks to last year’s transfer of Alana Cook from PSG to the Reign. Cook’s transfer was among the top 5 fees paid globally in 2021, likely in the range of $200-250k. However, Cook had two years left on her contract with PSG at the time of her transfer last summer, while Huitema had only one year remaining, so her fee was likely lower. Perhaps most importantly, the cap hits of both Heath and Huitema will be prorated for the remainder of this season.

But what about Little, you might be asking. Even though she’s likely making substantial wages at Arsenal, she will only be with OL Reign for about six weeks, so the team will be responsible for about 12% of her overall salary. If, hypothetically, she’s earning £250k, the impact on the Reign’s salary cap would be about $35k, which coincidentally is the same as this year’s NWSL minimum salary.

Even if this isn’t enough to convince you, one final aspect should — the NWSL office has to approve all transactions and contracts to ensure regulations are being followed. When allocation money was unveiled in November 2019, the expectation was that teams would find creative ways to use it to bolster their rosters. The Covid pandemic delayed a lot of those plans by a year, but also enabled teams to amass extra funds ahead of the 2021 season. OL Reign was also able to make some smart moves in late 2020, including loaning out some key players, which provided the opportunity to add three OL players on loan for half of the 2021 season, and they again made a series of seemingly minor moves this off-season which have enabled them to make significant signings this summer.

“How are OL Reign getting away with this?” The answer really is they’re doing what any team with a hunger to win the NWSL Championship should be doing: establishing a culture that makes them a desirable destination, and using resources available to them to acquire players that they feel can elevate the roster in the present and for years to come. These are the pillars of any competent organization that has ambitions and recognizes they can always do better.

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