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The National Women's Soccer League will kick off its fifth season in April with four prominent Americans an ocean away representing iconic soccer brands poised to make gains in the women's game.

Superstar Carli Lloyd was the latest — and most accomplished figure from the 2015 World Cup championship squad — to choose Europe by signing a short-term deal last week with Manchester City. She followed Alex Morgan jumping to French side Olympique Lyonnais, Crystal Dunn to Chelsea and Heather O'Reilly to Arsenal.

They are not all gone for good. Lloyd and Morgan are slated to rejoin the Houston Dash and Orlando Pride, respectively, this summer.

However, Dunn, the NWSL's 2015 MVP, does not plan to play for the Washington Spirit this year. O'Reilly, 32, signed an 18-month contract with the famed London club rather than return to FC Kansas City. She is in the twilight of her distinguished career, having retired from international soccer last fall while remaining active on the club level.

The departures are a clear setback for the NWSL, which last year became the first U.S. women's top-flight circuit in three attempts to survive more than three seasons. In its infancy, the NWSL relies heavily on U.S. stars to draw crowds: Lloyd and Morgan are the league's most popular players, and Dunn is among its most exciting.

Beyond the on-field and marketing voids, the moves have created a perception that, despite several positive steps, the league isn't doing enough to retain top-shelf players. The NWSL's predecessors, WUSA and WPS, missed out on a few young players, but any established names that went abroad during the offseason always returned.

U.S. players aren't the only ones looking elsewhere. Canada's Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, members of West Virginia's NCAA runner-up squad, signed with French clubs rather than enter the NWSL draft. Buchanan, the Hermann Trophy winner as college soccer's best player, probably would have been the No. 1 overall selection.

The NWSL works closely with the Canadian federation for the top dozen or so players to compete in the league. Ultimately, though, it's the players' decision.

So what's pulling them to Europe? First and foremost, clubs steeped in tradition — and cash — through their men's soccer business are increasing investment in women's soccer.

They can also offer elite training grounds and a culture and environment consumed by the sport as a whole, if not women's soccer. Lloyd, Morgan and Buchanan (Paris Saint-Germain) will get to compete in the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinals next month. (NWSL teams do not play internationally.)

"It's a unique opportunity for me to go abroad, play over here and be faced with a new and different challenge," Lloyd said. "The facilities are fascinating, and it's an unbelievable football club to be a part of."

Timing came into play, as well. U.S. Coach Jill Ellis prefers her players compete on the same NWSL calendar during busy years, but with no consequential tasks until the 2019 World Cup qualifiers in late 2018, the time to explore was now. The players will continue reporting to the national team for international matches, such as the SheBelieves Cup, March 1-7 in Chester, Pennsylvania, Harrison, New Jersey, and Washington.

The departures come amid a drawn-out labor dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which provides full-time salaries to about two dozen players in exchange for national team and NWSL duty. As negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement continue, the sides are operating under previous terms. However, the acrimony and uncertainty prompted some players to weigh their options.

If a new CBA is reached, the USSF would prorate the contracts of national team players who jetted off to Europe.

Meanwhile, with the season openers less than eight weeks away, the NWSL has still not announced the schedule, confounding fans and bedeviling ticket and marketing departments in each of the 10 markets.

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Notes: Ticket sales have surpassed 18,000 for the SheBelieves Cup doubleheader March 7 at RFK Stadium, featuring second-ranked Germany vs. No. 5 England and the top-ranked United States vs. No. 3 France. . . . The Americans have added friendlies against Russia on April 6 in Frisco, Texas, and April 9 in Houston.