NWSL 2021 season preview: Who to watch, new kits, key questions and more

The NWSL is back. The league is kicking off its season Friday with the 2021 Challenge Cup, a four-week tournament that will transition into the regular season beginning in May.

The Houston Dash are the reigning champions, having won last summer's inaugural Challenge Cup amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be the first to take the pitch in 2021. Moreover, the NWSL and NWSL Players Association just announced they're embarking on negotiations to establish the first collective bargaining agreement in league history.

So there's plenty to be excited about as the league grows in popularity. This year's campaign features a new squad, a relocated team, out-of-this-world kits, new faces in new places, and plenty of storylines to carry through the scheduled championship match on November 20.

When does the 2021 Challenge Cup start?

The Challenge Cup is a 21-game tournament beginning with group play and ending with the cup final. The NWSL debuted the format last summer as the first U.S. professional league to return amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The clubs are divided into two divisions, East and West, and will play four matches in home markets. The top teams in each division will meet in the Challenge Cup final on May 8 on CBS.

East: Racing Louisville FC, North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride, NJ/NY Gotham FC, Washington Spirit

West: Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City FC, OL Reign, Portland Thorns FC

The tournament begins Friday with a rematch of the 2020 Cup final between the champion Dash and Red Stars. The match is at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. Portland vs. Kansas City is at 10:30 p.m. on Paramount+. It will be the first match for the relocated club.

How to watch full NWSL schedule

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The full Challenge Cup schedule is here, culminating in the cup championship on Saturday, May 8. All matches are available on CBS, CBS Sports Network or Paramount+.

The action continues Saturday at 3:30 and 7 p.m. ET with N.C. Courage vs. Washington Spirit and Racing Louisville FC vs. Orlando Pride. It is the first match for Racing Louisville in franchise history.

The regular season will commence on May 15 with each of the 10 teams playing 24 games. There will not be a break for the Tokyo Olympics and the season will conclude on Oct. 30. The playoffs will consist of six clubs with game play beginning on Nov. 6 and concluding Nov. 20 with the NWSL championship game.

NWSL adds new club, owners

The league enters its ninth season with one new franchise and another that is in a new spot.

Racing Louisville FC makes it an even 10 teams in the league. It is the first top-tier professional sports team in Louisville since 1976. The club built its roster in an expansion draft in November and took up to two players from each team.

The Utah Royals relocated to Kansas City, where the franchise first began upon the league's founding, after the franchise was sold to a majority women-owned group. The sale was part of Dell Loy Hansen's sell-off of his Utah soccer holdings following his criticism of players' support of Black Lives Matter.

The ownership group includes Angie and Chris Long, both investment bankers, and Brittany Matthews, a former pro player and fiancée of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Other clubs also added new owners to the fray since last season. The Chicago Red Stars brought on ESPN personality Sarah Spain and Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield, among others. Presidential daughters Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager purchased ownership stakes in the Washington Spirit. Tennis Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka bought a stake in the N.C. Courage.

Angel City FC features a long list of celebrity owners and will not debut until 2022.

Looking fresh: New NWSL kits for 2021

Clubs rolled out new kits and brand refreshes this spring. Sky Blue FC announced it will now compete as NJ/NY Gotham FC with a new crest that features the Statue of Liberty's crown.

The Orlando Pride literally sent their kit into space. The club unveiled an "Ad Astra" primary kit last week featuring a space design on the upper half. The Houston Dash unveiled "Luv Ya Dash" secondary kits a week later featuring stars and the club's new crest. Both kits honor NASA and each city's contributions to space exploration.

The Courage, with the help of Osaka, unveiled "Mountains to the Sea" kits.

And of course Racing Louisville unveiled their inaugural kits, with violet, white and black color schemes and inspiration from Louisville icon Muhammad Ali.

NWSL faces in new places

Kelley O'Hara is one of several high-profile players on a new team this NWSL season. (Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images)
Kelley O'Hara is one of several high-profile players on a new team this NWSL season. (Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images)

Big names moved around this offseason between trades and two drafts. The rundown by new team, with former team in parentheses:

Chicago Red Stars: Mal Pugh (from Spirit)

N.C. Courage: Casey Murphy (from OL Reign)

Racing Louisville: Emily Fox (No. 1 overall draft pick), Yūki Nagasato (from Red Stars), Savannah McCaskill (from Red Stars)

Portland Thorns: Sophia Smith (No. 1 pick in 2020 who played only Fall Series last year), Crystal Dunn (from Courage/ OL Reign)

Washington Spirit: Trinity Rodman (No. 2 overall draft pick), Kelley O'Hara (from Royals), Emily Sonnett (from Pride)

USWNT stars remain with FAWSL clubs

The sport experienced an exodus of stars in August when top talent departed for clubs overseas. Five USWNT players will not remain with their FAWSL teams at the start of the NWSL season.

Rose Lavelle, whose rights are owned by the OL Reign after a trade with the Washington Spirit in August, and Sam Mewis, whose rights are retained by the NC Courage, are with Manchester City. Former NC Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper is also with Man City on a two and a half-year contract she signed in January.

USWNT forwards Christen Press and Tobin Heath will also stay overseas with Manchester United. Racing Louisville FC retains their rights after acquiring them in the expansion draft. The duo will stay with United until at least May.

NWSL season key questions, storylines

Can the Thorns win either the Challenge Cup or another league title after reloading the last couple seasons? The Thorns are stacked with talent and added the biggest addition of any squad this offseason in Dunn. The attacking midfielder and wing-back unites with USWNT teammates Lindsey Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn as Portland, which won the Verizon Community Shield last season after earning the most points in the Fall Series, tries to win the NWSL title for the first time since 2017.

Lindsey Horan (back), Christine Sinclair and the Portland Thorns are bursting at the seams with talent. Will they capture their first NWSL title since 2017? (Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Lindsey Horan (back), Christine Sinclair and the Portland Thorns are bursting at the seams with talent. Will they capture their first NWSL title since 2017? (Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Can the Pride finally piece together a championship contender with all that attacking? The Pride will be back in game action after having to sit out the Challenge Cup because of COVID-19 issues in the club. Orlando will also have striker Sydney Leroux back on the pitch after she signed a three-year deal in February. She has been away from the Pride for parts of the past five years while giving birth to son Cassius and daughter Roux and showed glimpses of her prime player in the fall series. Alex Morgan and Marta give the Pride dangerous front-line power.

Who will be hurt most by Olympic absences? The NWSL will not pause its season for the Tokyo Olympics, so clubs will play through parts of July and August without their national team stars in town. That could hurt clubs like the Thorns, which feature a full backline of USWNT talent; the Pride, with their own USWNT stars plus Marta playing for Brazil; and the Red Stars, with the likes of Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz and Mal Pugh.

Can Megan Rapinoe translate her international success to OL Reign? Rapinoe hasn't played a full NWSL season since 2018 because of the 2019 World Cup and opting out of the 2020 Challenge Cup. She's scored 34 goals and 15 assists over 75 matches with the club since 2013. The 2019 Ballon d'Or winner has been far more productive with the national team, especially in recent appearances.

How can Houston Dash build upon Challenge Cup title? Bubble sites are a great equalizer and the Houston Dash used it to win the club's first NWSL trophy. The Dash had never made the playoffs before 2020. They'll start the season without goalkeeper Jane Campbell and midfielder Kristie Mewis, who are with the national team in Europe. Dash head coach James Clarkson has called it a new, exciting era for the club.

Will North Carolina Courage piece together more contention after talent drain? The Courage were bounced from the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup last season after winning both the championship and the NWSL Shied as top regular season team in 2018 and 2019. They also won the Shield in 2017. But now they're without USWNTers Crystal Dunn (traded to Portland), Sam Mewis (Man City) and Dahlkemper (Man City). Newly acquired goalkeeper Casey Murphy and standout forward Lynn Williams are with the national team.

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