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NWSL Season Preview

Soccer

HAPPY FRIDAY! While we wait for the WNBA season to tip-off tonight (more on that in yesterday’s WNBA pop-up), we’re here to give you “the gist” on the NWSL regular season, which kicks off tomorrow at 5 p.m. ET. How lucky are we?

May 14, 2021
Source: Thorns FC/Giphy
Source: Thorns FC/Giphy

"I just love winning🤷🏾‍♀️😬"

— Portland Thorns FC and USWNT defender Crystal Dunn, responding to a tweet detailing her incredible NWSL accomplishments. We’re not worthy.

⚽️ The set-up

SOURCE: ORLANDO PRIDE/TWITTER

The ninth NWSL season begins tomorrow night, just one week after a thrilling Challenge Cup final saw the Thorns crowned as champions. Each of the league’s 10 teams will play 24 regular season games — 12 home and 12 away — beginning May 15th and concluding on October 31st. Spooky.

  • An important scheduling note: although many of the league’s top players will compete at the Tokyo Olympics, the NWSL won’t break for the Games, meaning teams will go without some of their top players for a short stretch this summer.

Looking ahead to the postseason, six of the 10 teams will advance to the playoffs in the NWSL’s newly expanded playoff field, with the top two teams receiving a first-round bye. Things wrap up with the championship game around November 20th. Mark your calendar.

💪 The favorites

SOURCE: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/USA TODAY SPORTS

Portland Thorns: The Thorns went undefeated en route to their Challenge Cup title. With all-time leading international goal scorer Christine Sinclair leading the offense and defender Becky Sauerbrunn, along with Challenge Cup hero and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch at the back, the Thorns look poised to make a sixth straight playoff appearance. Dominance.

North Carolina Courage: The Courage narrowly missed the Challenge Cup final, but the legendary Debinha still took home some hardware, earning the Challenge Cup MVP title with three goals in four games. Watch for her to lead a seriously stacked Courage squad (especially if the USWNT's Sam Mewis returns) through the regular season.

OL Reign: The Reign were the victims of a tough West division, playing well in the Challenge Cup but missing out on a final berth to the Thorns. So they decided to level up, adding a wealth of international talent (and potentially USWNT star Rose Lavelle) to a roster that already boasted Megan Rapinoe. Watch out, world.

😴 The sleepers

SOURCE: NJ/NY GOTHAM FC/TWITTER

NJ/NY Gotham FC: New name, who dis? Gotham put the league on notice by riding their epic rebrand all the way to the Challenge Cup final. With all of that fresh energy and veteran Carli Lloyd leading the frontline, we don’t need a bat signal telling us to watch out for Gotham this season. 

Houston Dash: The 2020 Challenge Cup champs will be playing with a chip on their shoulders as they hope to avenge this year’s third place Cup finish in the West division. The bright spot? Kristie Mewis kept doing Kristie Mewis things, scoring twice in two Cup games. Her USWNT Olympic roster status will have major implications for the Dash.

Washington Spirit: The Spirit look to put a tough Challenge Cup behind them and get back to their 2020 fall series form. One welcome addition is No. 2 draft pick forward Trinity Rodman who played like a vet and found the back of the net just minutes into her NWSL debut. The kid is alright.

Chicago Red Stars: The Red Stars also didn’t live up to Challenge Cup expectations, scoring just three goals in four games. But with the USWNT’s Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher holding down the defense and a star-studded ownership group bringing new energy, watch for the winds to change in the Windy City.

📈 The underdogs

SOURCE: STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL

Orlando Pride: The Pride defied expectations with a third-place East division Challenge Cup finish, competing for a spot in the finals in the tourney’s closing days. And while goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris impressed with two penalty saves in four games, the Pride struggled on offense — a trend they’ll need to overcome in the regular season.

KC NWSL: After packing up and moving out of Utah, KC struggled to find secure footing in their new home, limping to a last-place finish and grabbing just one point in the West division. After leading the club with two goals and six shots on target in the Challenge Cup, watch for NWSL vet forward Amy Rodriguez to take the reins once again.

Racing Louisville FC: Louisville had some bright spots throughout the Challenge Cup, including defender Brooke Hendrix making an impact up and down the field and grabbing a point in the club’s NWSL debut. 

  • Though we think their first NWSL regular season will leave them at the bottom of the standings once again, newest addition, and standout in the Women’s Super League (WSL), Ebony Salmon could prove us wrong.

👀 The players to watch

SOURCE: ANDY MEAD/ISI PHOTOS

Jessica McDonald, Courage, Forward: After opting out of the 2020 Fall Series, 2019 Women’s World Cup champ McDonaldtriumphantly returned to the Courage frontline, leading the squad with three assists and scoring two goals in four games. Don’t call it a comeback.

Cece Kizer, Louisville, Forward: Kizer made the most of her minutes in the Challenge Cup, converting three shots into two goals, including the first goal in Racing Louisville herstory. Our prediction? There’ll be plenty more where that came from.

DiDi Haracic, Gotham, Goalkeeper: A finalist for the Challenge Cup MVP, Haracic (pronounced ha-ra-CHEICH) led the league with 20 saves, posting three shutouts to help send Gotham to the finals. We’re still picking our jaws up off the floor from watching her make this savein the Challenge Cup final.

Katie Naughton, Dash, Defender: Naughtonplayed every minute with the Dash squad that only allowed two goals (a league best) throughout the Challenge Cup. Watch for this captain to direct the Houston backline in her first regular season play since being traded from Chicago.

🍁 The Canadians

The GIST: Without a Canadian team in the league, us Canucks are faced with the age-old problem: who should we cheer for?

Portland Thorns: The Challenge Cup winners are led by the greatest Canadian soccer player of all time, Christine Sinclair. Need we say more?

Houston Dash: If you’re looking for quality andquantity, there is a league-high four Canadians on the Dash roster: Allysha Chapman, Maegan Rosa, Nichelle Prince and CanWNT superstar Sophie Schmidt.

OL Reign: Quinn is not just the sole Canadian to play for the Washington state-based team, but they’re also the first trans and non-binary player to compete in the league after coming out publicly last September. If you’re looking for exemplary on and off the field, look no further.

NJ/NY Gotham FC: And if you like a little Europe with your Canada, rising CanWNT star Évelyne Viens is bringing the French flare to the NWSL after spending last season with Paris FC. She’ll re-join Gotham (who drafted her last year) and fellow Canadian Kailen Sheridan.

🎥 How to tune in

SOURCE: NWSL/TWITTER

Lucky for us, there’ll be plenty of ways to catch the action this season. In the U.S., CBS and CBS Sports will carry a handful (at least 14) regular season games while 82 additional regular season games will be available on Paramount+. We’ll take it. Outside of the U.S., all matches will be streamed internationally on Twitch.

  • And if you want to listen on-the-go? You’re covered! The NWSL recently announced their first-ever live audio partnership, a deal with iHeartMedia to broadcast two of the biggest games each week on the new digital NWSL Radio station. So cool.
  • It all starts tomorrow, with a weekend slate featuring all 10 teams in action, kicking off with the rookies: Louisville vs. Kansas City at 5 p.m. ET. Let the games begin.