NWSL: Everything you need to know ahead of 2021 regular season

2021 NWSL game ball.
A general view of the game ball used in the NWSL Challenge Cup match between the Orlando Pride and Gotham FC on April 14, 2021, at Exploria Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire)

Just over a week after the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup ended, the National Women’s Soccer League is wasting no time in carrying the hype directly into the regular season.

On May 8, the Portland Thorns were crowned this year’s Challenge Cup champions after a thrilling shootout against the newly rebranded team NJ/NY Gotham FC. Viewers throughout the competition were able to see the debut of a new club, a newly relocated club, the rebranding club, and fresh faces as the teams began to figure out what combinations would be worth their wild during this month long Cup. This allowed for clubs to see the kinks that could be problematic as the new season quickly approached.

Similarly to the inaugural 2020 Challenge Cup, board members decided that this style of play will keep competition just as fierce as what other leagues across Europe take part in on a regular basis making the Challenge Cup a regular occurrence. With the NWSL being the first major sporting league to return during the pandemic, the 2021 criteria did not divert from the guidelines that were originally set. Working heavily with the CDC, the NWSL ensured players would compete in a safe environment and helped make the transition to the regular season a little smoother. 

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Head to the stands 

The wait is finally over! The 2021 NWSL regular season will start the weekend of May 15 and 16 with some very hefty matches. A total of five matches jump start this wonderful football-filled weekend. With the stands holding a limited capacity of fans, one can only imagine what the atmosphere will be like when each home team kicks off a much anticipated season. 

This will not mirror the Challenge Cup. The traditional league format will resume, with all teams having 12 home and away games. Teams will also not split up into divisions based on regions as we saw last month. All ten teams will be in one league table fighting for the top spot.

Similar to the 2019 season, viewers will be able to see a knockout stage based on the top six best clubs. The single elimination stage will take place on November 6 and conclude with the 2021 NWSL Championship match on November 20. 

Another factor that teams will be navigating through this season is international friendlies, including the Tokyo Olympics. League action will not pause for international players to go and compete for their respected countries. This is common for the NWSL, as fans missed seeing their favorite international stars during the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

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What you need to know

Does the 2021 Challenge Cup result reveal how the upcoming season will go? Some might say yes due to the fact that the two powerhouses from the West and East will remain major contenders. Though, others might describe the Challenge Cup as a building block for teams to assess themselves before league play begins.

With all ten teams participating in a table ranking format, it will come down to who will be able to rack up the most points. This point-based scoring will be crucial for teams as they attempt to advance into the knockout stages. From there, a championship match looms for the best two teams at the end of the season.

The legends

One thing that stayed true during the Challenge Cup is that no one can ever count out a legend. Sinclair, Marta, and Lloyd reminded viewers that they will continue to carry their GOAT status in this league each time they step out onto the pitch.

With Sinclair and Lloyd making their appearance in the recent Challenge Cup final, one can bet that these two will continue to make headlines as they help lead their teams to that top spot in 2021.

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The underdogs 

Everyone loves an underdog. Racing Louisville and Kansas City NWSL both received a point in this year’s Challenge Cup, but does that really mean anything?

Over the last few weeks, both teams have caused some heads to turn with international signees joining the club. Gemma Bonner from Manchester City and Ebony Salmon from Bristol City are joining Louisville. Meanwhile, Kansas City snagged former Olympique Lyonnais forward Jessica Silva.

With these names joining the conversation, it sparks potential for each of these teams to display some fire power. They could just be the right calibre of player each team needed so dearly during the Challenge Cup.

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The sleeper 

In every season, there is always one team that catches spectators by surprise. The club that seems to have been flying under the radar this upcoming season would be OL Reign.

The Tacoma-based team’s partnership between Olympique Lyonnais has seen its benefits. Ssignees Sarah Bouhaddi, Eugenie Le Sommer, and Dzsenifer Marozsan are all coming over on loan until the end of the 2021 season. One can also not forget a major signing that took place before the Challenge Cup and that was Manchester City’s goalkeeper Karen Bardsley. With these players in place, OL will be a force worth reckoning with.

Even without the incoming transfers, the club has had standouts players in its roster for multiple seasons. Each are difference makers in their own right, including Bethany Balcer, Quinn, Shirley Cruz, Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock, Tziarra King, and last but not least Megan Rapinoe.

The depth of this squad seems to continue to daze spectators across the league in hopes of more players from foreign markets to join the NWSL.

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How to watch

One cannot deny that the NWSL knows how to get the excitement started. Viewership continues to go through the roof, breaking records yet again with the NWSL Challenge Cup final coming in at over 523k viewers.

Partnering with Paramount+, coverage of NWSL games has expanded immensely for 2021. In the United States, 82 games will stream live on the app as CBS Sports Network provides overall coverage. For international viewers, the NWSL’s Twitch channel will also air games throughout the season.

There will be plenty to keep our eyes open for as the 2021 NWSL regular season draws near. So, grab that popcorn and hold onto your seat. The latest league action kicks off this weekend!

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