The NWSL Is There For Barbra Banda’s Taking

One of the easiest ways to understand a soccer player’s true talent level is to watch how their opponents treat them. A forward might have a respectable goal record and a reputation for producing highlights, but if they spend a whole game getting played tight and crunched by a fearless center back, they might not be all that. Barbra Banda is not one of those players.

Take this moment from last week’s match between the Orlando Pride and San Diego Wave. Banda, who in eight matches has tallied eight goals and three assists with the Pride, found herself on the ball just past the halfway line. Banda got to running, and the only thing standing between her and a perfectly executed counterattack was Naomi Girma, one of the best defenders in the entire world. Banda kept sprinting right at Girma, who just kept retreating … and retreating … and retreating … until suddenly Banda had the ball in the Wave’s box and was pinging an inch-perfect cross to Julie Doyle, who buried the chance.

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Girma didn’t really have any great options in that scenario, but you’d expect a defender of her caliber to do something to try and discomfort Banda before she reached the penalty box. Being on a yellow card didn’t help, nor did the fact that a few minutes before that counterattack, Banda isolated Girma in the box and spun her around with a vicious cut-back dribble that opened up yards of space for a pass. And a few minutes after the goal, Wave defender Hanna Lundkvist justified Girma’s caginess by getting tight to Banda’s body, only to get nutmegged for her trouble. A great player’s dominance of a game or season often manifests itself through this accretive process. A defender-skinning elastico or nutmeg in the 17th minute is still in a defender’s mind in the 34th; those memories add up over time, and eventually instill hesitation and timidity in defenders, which lead to goals.

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Banda’s been sticking in a lot of people’s minds in this, her first season in the NWSL. To say that she hit the ground running would be an understatement. The Pride signed Banda in March, and she made her debut on April 19, playing 30 minutes as a sub off the bench. She started the next seven games, racking up her 11 direct goal contributions. The most frightening thing for Banda’s opponents is the fact that she’s not even fully fit yet. She’s had her minutes managed in each of the last two games, having been subbed off at halftime in both, and yet she still produced two goals and an assist across those 90 minutes. The Pride, who finished seventh in the league table last season, are currently undefeated and tied with the KC Current with 28 points at the top of the table.

A skeptic might look at Banda parachuting into the NWSL and immediately pulling a middling team to the top of the standings and claim it as evidence that the NWSL’s level of competition isn’t as high as it presents. But such a viewpoint would vastly underrate Banda’s talent. She is one of the best players in the world, and if it feels like she and the Pride have come out of nowhere this season, that’s only because her previous exploits haven’t been as accessible to Western audiences. The world got a glimpse of her abilities when she led Zambia into the World Cup last summer, but the bulk of her professional career has taken place in the Chinese Super League. She played well enough there to command a $740,000 transfer fee, the second-highest in the history of women’s soccer, and a four-year contract reportedly worth $2.1 million.

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Speaking of record transfer fees, the only player who’s cost more than Banda is her Zambian teammate, Racheal Kundananji. She was brought to the NWSL this year by expansion team Bay FC, which forked over $787,600 to Madrid CFF. Kundananji and Banda have been joined in the NWSL this year by Malawian international Temwa Chawinga, who, like Banda, also made the journey from the Chinese Super League to the NWSL and has lifted the KC Current to the top of the table by contributing seven goals and four assists in 12 games.

It’s not a stretch to say that Banda and Chawinga are currently running the NWSL (Kundananji, who has two goals and one assist so far for a team in 10th place, has some catching up to do), and their immediate ascendance tells an encouraging story about where the league is headed. There is a lot of talent to be found in the women’s game right now, and over the next few years the competition between the U.S.’s NWSL, England’s WSL, and Spain’s Liga F to secure as much of that talent as possible will only intensify. What will ultimately separate teams and leagues is not just a matter of who is and isn’t willing to spend money, but where they spend it. Nothing does more to keep the market churning and expanding than a player like Banda coming to a new league and instantly making the investment look like a bargain. The Pride took a big swing in signing Banda. Here’s hoping she encourages more teams to step up to the plate.

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