2021 NWSL season preview: Everything you need to know

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Washington Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan, right, defends against Portland Thorns forward Christine Sinclair during the first half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium on Sunday, July 5, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

After enjoying a breakthrough campaign last year, the National Women’s Soccer League will look to do even better when it kicks off its 2021 regular season on Saturday.

While the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball were still sidelined by the global pandemic at the start of last summer, the NWSL became the first U.S. professional sports league to return to action in late June. Its 2020 Challenge Cup held in Utah earned raved reviews, as the round-robin competition became the template that other pro sports leagues used for their own “bubble tournaments.”

The month-long Challenge Cup was so successful the NWSL decided to bring it back this year as a special pre-season tournament. Canadian Christine Sinclair helped Portland Thorns FC beat NJ/NY Gotham FC in a dramatic final last weekend that capped off an entertaining competition. The Challenge Cup was initially conceived as a way to salvage the NWSL’s 2020 season during the pandemic but has turned into a value property for the league.

The NWSL also broke league ratings records by nearly 300 per cent last year thanks in part to new broadcast and streaming deals with CBS Sports and Amazon’s Twitch.

All of which sets the stage for what promises to be a memorable 2021 NWSL regular season. Here’s what you need to know.

REGULAR SEASON AND PLAYOFF FORMAT

The 24-game regular season begins on May 15 and concludes on Oct. 30, with the 10 teams playing in a single-table format. The playoffs will feature the six best clubs at the end of the regular season, with the top two sides receiving first-round byes. The post-season starts on Nov. 6 and will follow a single-elimination format, before concluding with the NWSL Championship on Nov. 20.

Critically, the league will not take a break for the Olympics, which means many NWSL clubs will have to make do without some of their top players who will be with their national teams in Tokyo for a big chunk of the summer.

THE NEWCOMER, TEAM NAME & CLUB RELOCATION

The NWSL has expanded to 10 teams this season as it welcomes newcomers Racing Louisville FC into the fold. Led by Irish coach Christy Holly, Louisville had a rough time in this year’s Challenge Cup, finishing bottom of the East Division after going winless in four games.

Sky Blue FC was a founding member of the NWSL in 2013, but the New Jersey-based club recently underwent a rebranding and is now known as NJ/NY Gotham FC. The name may have changed, but the club is still the same, and features top American forward Carli Lloyd, as well as Canadians Kailen Sheridan and Evelyne Viens.

The Utah Royals ceased operations last December after three years but were reborn as Kansas City NWSL during the off-season, marking the league’s return to that market since 2017 when FC Kansas City (one of its founding clubs) dissolved.

Here’s the full roll call of teams for the 2021 NWSL season: Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City NWSL, NJ/NY Gotham FC, North Carolina Courage, OL Reign (based in Tacoma, Washington), Orlando Pride, Portland Thorns FC, Racing Louisville FC and Washington Spirit.

THE RETURN OF ORLANDO PRIDE

The Orlando Pride entered the league five years ago, with its best season coming in 2018 when it reached the semifinals of the playoffs. But the Pride fell upon tough times last summer when several positive COVID-19 tests among both players and staff forced them to withdraw from the Challenge Cup.

The Pride returned to action later in the year for the NWSL’s Fall Series but finished tied for last place in the tournament. Now with a full season ahead of them and boasting notable stars such as American forward Alex Morgan and Brazil’s Marta (a six-time FIFA World Player of the Year), Orlando will be looking to make up for what was essentially a lost 2020 season.

CAN RAPINOE DUPLICATE U.S. SUCCESS WITH OL REIGN?

Iconic American midfielder Megan Rapinoe hasn’t played a full NWSL season since 2018. Rapinoe missed part of the 2019 campaign because she was busy that summer helping the United States win the World Cup, and she opted out of the 2020 Challenge Cup.

Rapinoe has scored 34 goals over 77 matches with the club since 2013, which isn’t a bad haul. But the 2019 Ballon d’Or winner has been far more productive and successful with the U.S. national team.

CANADIAN CONTENT

A number of high-profile Canadian players, many of whom will be competing at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, should feature prominently for their NWSL clubs in 2021.

You don’t have to look any further than Christine Sinclair. The iconic Canadian captain is entering her ninth season with Portland Thorns FC and is looking to win her third NWSL Championship, and first since 2017. At age 37, Sinclair doesn’t appear to be slowing down, as she scored two goals in the recent Challenge Cup, including one in the final.

Evelyne Viens is another Canadian to keep close tabs on. The 24-year-old forward earned her first caps for Canada earlier this year, and she is coming off a successful loan at Paris FC where she scored 11 goals in 14 matches in France’s second division.

Sophie Schmidt played a starring role in helping the Houston Dash win last year’s Challenge Cup, fellow midfielder Quinn is a key starter for OL Reign, while promising youngster Jordyn Listro, and veterans Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott are expected to be important contributors for Kansas City NWSL.

DAZZLING DEBINHA

When you think about the Brazilian women’s team, one name probably springs to mind: Marta.

But Debinha, a 29-year-old forward, has quietly been making a name for herself as one of Brazil’s top players since entering the NWSL in 2017 with the North Carolina Courage. The Brazilian has racked up 24 goals in 70 appearances, helping the Courage win back-to-back league titles in 2018 and 2019, and was named NWSL Championship Game MVP in 2019.

More recently, Debinha was named the MVP of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup after scoring a tournament-leading three goals and 16 shots in four appearances, as North Carolina finished second in the East Division.

“When you pay admission you want to see players like Deb express themselves and the incredible consistency of her game has in my opinion elevated Deb to the top player in the world. We are privileged to have her in our league and we are privileged to see masterclass evolving in front of our eyes,” said North Carolina head coach Paul Riley.


John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.

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