NWSL: 2021 Format Announced – Challenge Cup Returns, Playoffs Expanded

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird presents the NWSL Challenge Cup trophy to Houston Dash's Rachel Daly.
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird presents the NWSL Challenge Cup trophy to Houston Dash's Rachel Daly. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Coming fresh off the excitement that was the NWSL Expansion Draft, the National Women’s Soccer League announced its plan for 2021.

The 2020 NWSL season was more than unique for everyone involved. Yet, through uncertainty, the league was able to safely navigate new terrain.

Both the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series were wildly successful. Because of this, it’s understandable that the league would like to replicate that success for 2021.

Starting in mid-April of next year, the second annual NWSL Challenge Cup will kick off. This will follow a two-month-long preseason, as players will report to their clubs on February 1.

The details of the next iteration of the Challenge Cup are not set in stone. However, it’s expected to look more like the Fall Series with multiple host environments utilized.

Sky Blue FC goalie Kailen Sheridan shouts as the ball is kicked to the front of the net during the NWSL Falls Series game between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit on September 5, 2020.
NWSL Falls Series game between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire)

What’s even more appealing is that the Challenge Cup will not replace the regular season. Following the cup’s conclusion, the 2021 NWSL regular season will begin in mid-May.

Each of the ten teams will play 24 matches across the summer and into the fall. The top six teams at the end of the regular season will qualify for the playoffs. While only four teams were able to qualify in the past, this expanded playoff field will give even mid-table teams a chance at a championship run.

The 2021 NWSL Championship game will take place during the weekend of November 20. From there, another NWSL Expansion Draft is expected as Angel City FC enters the fold ahead of the league’s tenth anniversary season.

An NWSL logo sign before the quarterfinal match of the NWSL Challenge Cup between the Houston Dash and the Utah Royals FC at Zions Bank Stadium on July 17, 2020 in Herriman, Utah.
The NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In all, the 2021 season will not be short in action. With a preseason starting in February and a postseason ending in November, there is ample time for many twists and turns.

Also tucked into that timeframe is the Olympics. The summer games will take place from July 23 to August 8, 2021 in Japan. It’s another great reason for players to set their sights on the Challenge Cup, as they aim to impress their respective national teams.

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