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A Beginner's Guide to the NWSL

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

The National Women’s Soccer League is back, the first major American sports league to return to action amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The league will offer a month-long event called the Challenge Cup, which kicks off in late June and concludes at the end of July.

Maybe you followed the United States women on their historical World Cup defense last summer. Maybe you’re a long-time fan who just wants a refresher. Maybe you’re just desperate for live sports and want a little bit of background. Whatever your position, this is a guide to get you situated for the new season. So let’s get right into it.

What is the format?

Each team will open with four preliminary matches, on matchdays that cover each weekend and midweek from June 27 through July 13. That will establish the seeding for the knockout rounds, which will run from July 17 until July 26.

Yes, it’s a slightly goofy format, with four unbalanced group stage matches that don't actually eliminate anyone. But think of it more as a preseason with stakes, which will guarantee everyone five games while establishing a seeding system for the cup itself. And hopefully those matches will generate some Narrative that carries into the knockout round.

How can I watch?

The first match and the final will air on the main CBS channel. All other matches will be available through CBS All Access. If you don’t already have it, you can get a single month subscription, with a free week to get you started, for the cost of a tall latte or a paperback book (remember going out into the world and buying things?).

International viewers—or those able to convince a website that you are outside the USA—can stream everything for free on Twitch. If you don’t know what Twitch is, here’s a quick primer.

How did they get back online so quickly?

Scrappiness and solidarity. As commissioner Lisa Baird put it on a media conference call a few days ago, “being small and nimble has been to our advantage.” While Major League Baseball owners and players are fighting over billions of dollars in contracts and revenues, the stakes are lower here. That has cooled down the negotiations and encouraged everyone to pull together. The league has actually guaranteed all contracts – whether or not a player chooses to participate – after some strong advocacy from the Players Association. And the owners are chipping in substantial funds to get the show on the road. The small size of the league also makes it possible to host the entire event in a single location, with housing and facilities covered by sponsors and by Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen. With everyone pulling together, they got everything into place.

Is it safe?

That's a good question. The league worked hard to develop a fairly detailed plans for testing and risk management. But if there's one thing we've learned about COVID-19, it's that individual efforts often falter in the face of larger social conditions. That proved to be the case in Florida this week, as the Orlando Pride came down with nearly a dozen positive cases linked to some players frequenting local drinking establishments.

Still, the conditions in Florida, and the willingness of that team's players to violate quarantine, doesn't necessarily tell us anything about other teams that have been preparing in more restricted environments. Conditions in Utah certainly aren't moving in the right direction, but that doesn't necessarily implicate the players and staff who will be isolated from the rest of the outside world. The plan is to create a single ‘NWSL Village’ where teams will be able to isolate together, in a single hotel with every amenity including catering, full provision of necessities, and ping pong tables.

Doesn’t that NWSL Village sound like the perfect setting for a new reality TV show?

Sure does!

What makes the league so great?

All your USWNT favorites from last summer’s World Cup play here, along with some of the biggest names from the rest of the world: Christine Sinclair, who has scored more international goals than any human being in history; Debinha, the next great player from Brazil; Yuki Nagasato and Yuka Momiki of Japan; Jodie Taylor and Rachel Daly of England; Raquel Rodríguez from Costa Rica. And these are only a tiny sample of the incredibly talented players that fill this league. Dig down and you’ll discover scores more world-class athletes worthy of your attention.

Who are the favorites?

  • The North Carolina Courage are the two-time defending champions and possibly the best club team in the world. They’re heavy favorites, whatever the format.

  • The Chicago Red Stars made the finals last year, and have a great core, but they’ve lost Sam Kerr—potentially the best player in the world. With Kerr gone, it’s still a little unclear where the goals will come from.

  • The Portland Thorns are regular contenders, but they’ve done a bit of an overhaul this offseason and will be relying heavily on a young and inexperienced, but extremely talented, strike force.

The odds definitely favor one of those teams winning, but this is a pretty balanced league. In a short tournament, everyone has a real chance.

Who should I support?

  • If you want to maximize your chance to celebrate, support one of the teams listed above. But they've all got different personalities, so choose wisely. In Star Wars terms, North Carolina are the Empire, the Red Stars are the rebels, and the Thorns are the old galactic empire.

  • If you like young teams filled with potential, the Washington Spirit have an incredible core, led by Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan. They should be a lot of fun.

  • The Utah Royals have often struggled to put together a clear team identity or play style, relying heavily on Christen Press to magic goals out of nothing. And with Press missing out on the competition, they may struggle mightily for goals. But perhaps home-field advantage will make a difference and they'll put together a run.

  • If you like name changes, you’ll love OL Reign née Reign FC née Seattle Reign. The most recent change stems from their purchase by France’s Olympique Lyonnais, who are bringing some international flair to the Pacific Northwest. That’s bolstered by the presence of top players from the US, England, Japan, Costa Rica, Wales, and New Zealand...all on one roster.

  • And then there are the redemption stories. Sky Blue FC have risen from a record-setting disaster in 2018, when they managed one solitary win on the final day of the season, and have put together a really compelling roster. Meanwhile, the Houston Dash have never made the playoffs in their existence but some slick offseason deals have revitalized their backline and vaulted them back into the competition.

Who can pay attention to sports right now, with the world on fire?

That’s a fair question. But if you care about politics, you’ll probably appreciate the NWSL for being a space where the ‘stick to sports’ mantra doesn’t get much traction. Megan Rapinoe famously kneeled in support of Colin Kaepernick. Players like Adrianna Franch, Midge Purce, and Crystal Dunn have offered powerful messages about race and the experience of blackness in America. In the past week, a group of national team players spoke with The Athletic about their experience in bracing, honest terms. We’ve seen strong messages of support from prominent young white players, like Rose Lavelle and Tierna Davidson.

Fans in this league expect thoughtful engagement on the core issues of our time, and the players deliver. It's still a sports league, with all the competitiveness and passion that implies. But it's sports with a conscience, something that feels absolutely essential in this time.

Where should I go if I want to learn more?

There will be plenty of coverage here at Backline Soccer - we've got a full roster of writers and editors that you can follow on Twitter, which is really where a lot of the NWSL action takes place. And we're running previews for every team this week to bring you up to speed.

Another excellent list for twitter follows is the NWSL Media Association member list. You might also want to check out The Equalizer and AllForXI - two great resources for American women's soccer content. If you want team-specific content, there's tons of great resources out there, but NWSL News is a great central repository that will connect you to lots of options.