Season preview, important questions as you can see
The NWSL is back. The league starts its season on Friday with the 2021 Challenge Cup, a four-week tournament that will move into the regular season from May.
The Houston Dash are the reigning champions after winning the first Challenge Cup as part of the COVID-19 pandemic last summer. They will be the first to enter the field in 2021. In addition, the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association have just announced that they will start negotiations to conclude the first collective agreement in the history of the league.
So there’s a lot to look forward to when the league grows in popularity. This year’s campaign features a new roster, relocated team, out of this world kits, new faces in new locations, and lots of storylines to continue the scheduled championship game on November 20th.
When does the 2021 Challenge Cup start?
The Challenge Cup is a 21-game tournament that starts with the group game and ends with the cup final. The NWSL debuted last summer as the first U.S. professional league to return amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The clubs are divided into two divisions, East and West, and will play four games in their home markets. The top teams in each division will meet on May 8 for the Challenge Cup finals on CBS.
East: Race Louisville FC, North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride, NJ / NY Gotham FC, Washington Spirit
West: Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City FC, OL Reign, Portland Thorns FC
The tournament kicks off on Friday with a rematch of the 2020 Cup Final between Champion Dash and Red Stars. The game takes place at 8:30 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Network. Portland vs Kansas City is at 10:30 p.m. on Paramount +. It will be the first game for the relocated club.
This is how you can see the full NWSL schedule
The full Challenge Cup schedule is here, culminating in the Cup championship on Saturday May 8th. All games are available on CBS, CBS Sports Network or Paramount +.
The action will continue on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. ET with N.C. Courage versus Washington Spirit and Racing Louisville FC versus Orlando Pride. It is the first Racing Louisville game in franchise history.
The regular season starts on May 15th with each of the 10 teams playing 24 games. There will be no break for the Tokyo Olympics and the season will end on October 30th. The playoffs consist of six clubs whose game begins on November 6th and ends on November 20th with the NWSL championship game.
NWSL adds new club owners
The league begins its ninth season with a new franchise and another that is in a new location.
With Racing Louisville FC there are even 10 teams in the league. It is the first professional elite sports team in Louisville since 1976. The club built its list in November in an expansion draft and took on up to two players from each team.
The Utah Royals moved to Kansas City, where the franchise first began with the formation of the league after the franchise was sold to a majority female-owned group. The sale was part of Dell Loy Hansen’s sell-off of its Utah football inventory after criticizing players’ support for Black Lives Matter.
The ownership group includes Angie and Chris Long, both investment bankers, and Brittany Matthews, a former professional gamer and fiancee of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Other clubs have also added new owners to the fray since last season. The Chicago Red Stars spawned ESPN personality Sarah Spain and Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield, among others. The presidential daughters Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager acquired stakes in the Washington Spirit. Tennis Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka bought a stake in NC Courage.
Angel City FC has a long list of celebrity owners and won’t debut until 2022.
Looking fresh: New NWSL kits for 2021
The clubs released new kits and brand updates this spring. Sky Blue FC announced that it will now compete as NJ / NY Gotham FC with a new crest with the Statue of Liberty crown.
The Orlando Pride literally sent their gear into space. The club unveiled an “Ad Astra” primary kit last week that features a room design in the top half. The Houston Dash unveiled the “Luv Ya Dash” secondary kits a week later, featuring stars and the club’s new crest. Both kits recognize the contributions of NASA and each city to space exploration.
The courage, with the help of Osaka, revealed “Mountains to the sea“Kits.
And of course Racing Louisville introduced its first kits, with purple, white, and black color schemes and inspiration from Louisville icon Muhammad Ali.
NWSL faces new places
Big names moved between trades and two drafts this off-season. The overview of the new team with the former team in brackets:
Chicago Red Stars: Mal Pugh (by Spirit)
Courage: Casey Murphy (by OL Reign)
Racing Louisville: Emily Fox (# 1 on Draft Picks), Yūki Nagasato (from Red Stars), Savannah McCaskill (from Red Stars)
Portland Thorns: Sophia Smith (# 1 in 2020 who only played the fall series last year), Crystal Dunn (by Courage / OL Reign)
Washington Spirit: Trinity Rodman (# 2), Kelley O’Hara (from Royals), Emily Sonnett (from Pride)
USWNT stars stay with FAWSL clubs
The sport saw a star exodus in August when top talent left for clubs overseas. Five USWNT players are not staying with their FAWSL teams at the start of the NWSL season.
Rose Lavelle, whose rights are held by OL Reign following an August deal with the Washington Spirit, and Sam Mewis, whose rights are retained by NC Courage, are with Manchester City. Former NC Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper signed a two and a half year deal with Man City that she signed in January.
USWNT strikers Christen Press and Tobin Heath are also staying with Manchester United overseas. Racing Louisville FC retains its rights after acquiring them in the draft expansion. The duo will stay with United at least until May.
NWSL season key questions, storylines
After reloading the last few seasons, can the Thorns win either the Challenge Cup or another championship title? The Thorns are full of talent and have added the biggest addition of any roster this offseason at Dunn. The attacking midfielder and full-back reunites with USWNT teammates Lindsey Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn as Portland, who won the Verizon Community Shield last season after scooping the most points in the Fall series, tries for the first time since 2017 to win the NWSL title.
Can pride finally put together a championship candidate with all of these attacks? The Pride will be back in the game after being forced to suspend the Challenge Cup due to COVID-19 issues at the club. Orlando will also have striker Sydney Leroux back on the field after signing a three-year deal in February. She was for parts of the pride in the past five years when she gave birth to son Cassius and daughter Roux, and revealed glimpses of her lead player in the Fall series. Alex Morgan and Marta give the Pride dangerous front-line power.
Who is hurt the most by Olympic absences? The NWSL will not pause their season for the Tokyo Olympics, so the clubs will play through parts of July and August in the city without their national team stars. That could hurt clubs like the Thorns, which have a full backline of USWNT talent. the Pride with their own USWNT stars and Marta, who plays for Brazil; and the Red Stars with the likes of Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz and Mal Pugh.
Can Megan Rapinoe transfer her international success to OL Reign? Rapinoe has not played a full NWSL season since 2018 because of the 2019 World Cup and the cancellation of the Challenge Cup 2020. Since 2013, she has scored 34 goals and 15 assists in 75 games. The 2019 Ballon d’Or winner was far more productive with the national team, especially in the last few games.
How can Houston Dash build on the Challenge Cup title? Bubble sites are a great counterbalance, and with them the Houston Dash won the club’s first NWSL trophy. The Dash had never reached the playoffs before 2020. You will start the season without goalkeeper Jane Campbell and midfielder Kristie Mewis, who are part of the European national team. Dash head coach James Clarkson has called it a new, exciting era for the club.
After the downsizing, will North Carolina Courage bring more arguments together? The courage was brought out of the knockout phase of the Challenge Cup last season after winning both the championship and the NWSL Shied as the best regular season team in 2018 and 2019. In 2017 they also won the Shield. Now, however, they are without USWNTers Crystal Dunn (traded in Portland), Sam Mewis (Man City) and Dahlkemper (Man City). Newly recruited goalkeeper Casey Murphy and outstanding striker Lynn Williams are on the national team.
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