National Women's Soccer League
The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is a professional women's soccer league owned by the teams, and under a management contract with the United States Soccer Federation. At the top of the United States league system, it represents the sport's highest level in the United States.
|Founded||November 21, 2012|
|Confederation||CONCACAF (North America)|
|Number of teams||10|
|Level on pyramid||1|
|League cup(s)||NWSL Challenge Cup|
|Current champions||North Carolina Courage (2nd title) |
|Current NWSL Shield||North Carolina Courage (3rd shield) |
|Most championships||FC Kansas City |
North Carolina Courage
Portland Thorns FC (2 titles)
|Most NWSL Shields||North Carolina Courage (3 shields)|
|TV partners||CBS Sports and Twitch|
|Current: 2021 NWSL season|
The NWSL was established in 2012 as the successor to Women's Professional Soccer (2007–2012), which was itself the successor to Women's United Soccer Association (2001–2003). The league began play in 2013 with eight teams, four of which were former members of Women's Professional Soccer (Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC, and Western New York Flash). With the addition of four expansion teams in Houston (2014), Orlando (2016), Utah (2018), Louisville (2021) and the loss of FC Kansas City and Boston Breakers, it now has ten teams throughout the United States.
Since the league's inaugural season in 2013, four teams have been crowned NWSL Champions, awarded to the playoff winner, and four teams have claimed the NWSL Shield, awarded to the team in first place at the end of the regular season. The current champions are the North Carolina Courage (2019). The current shield winners are also the Courage, who in 2018 became the first team to claim both the NWSL Championship and the NWSL Shield in the same season and repeated the feat in 2019.
The NWSL season runs from April to November, with each team scheduled for 24 regular-season games (12 home and 12 road games). At the end of the regular season, the team with the highest point total is awarded the NWSL Shield. The six teams with the most points from the regular season qualify for the playoffs, with the top two teams receiving a first-round bye; the higher-seeded teams would host single knockout matches, with the semifinal winners advancing to the championship final played at a predetermined site.
The current competition format will begin in the 2021 season. Prior to 2021, the playoffs included only four teams. The number of regular-season matches had also fluctuated between 20 and 24 in past seasons.
After Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) officially folded in April 2012, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF or US Soccer) announced a roundtable for discussion of the future of women's professional soccer in the United States. The meeting, which included representatives from USSF, WPS teams, the W-League (ceased operation in 2015), and the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), was held in June. By November, after much discussion, owners from the Chicago Red Stars, Boston Breakers and US Soccer recruited an additional six teams. Compared to WPS, the teams would intentionally operate at a lower cost structure and manage growth in a sustainable way.
In November 2012, it was announced that there would be eight teams in a new women's professional soccer league that was yet to be named at the time of the announcement, with national team players subsidized by the USSF, the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and the Mexican Football Federation (FMF). The three federations would pay for the salaries of their national team players (24 from the US, 16 from Canada, and 12 to 16 from Mexico) to aid the teams in creating world-class rosters while staying under the salary cap. The players would be distributed evenly (as possible) among the eight teams in an allocation process. USSF would be hired through a contract to manage aspects of the league. The teams own the league and periodically revisit the Management relationship with US Soccer and/or others.
On November 29, 2012, it was announced that Cheryl Bailey had been named executive director in the new league. Bailey had previously served as general manager of the United States women's national soccer team from 2007 to 2011, which included leading the support staff for the U.S. team during the 2007 and 2011 FIFA Women's World Cups, as well as the 2008 Summer Olympics. During her tenure with the women's national team, she was in charge of all areas of administration including interfacing with clubs, team travel, payroll, and working with FIFA, CONCACAF, and other federations.
The first NWSL game was held on April 13, 2013, as the Portland Thorns visited FC Kansas City, playing to a 1–1 draw in front of a crowd of 6,784 fans at Shawnee Mission District Stadium. Renae Cuellar scored the first goal in league history. The 2013 season saw regular-season attendance average of 4,270, with a high of 17,619 on August 4 for Kansas City at Portland.
The NWSL became the first U.S. professional women's soccer league to reach nine teams with the addition of Houston Dash, backed by Major League Soccer (MLS) team Houston Dynamo, in 2014; expansion interest, particularly from MLS and USL teams, has continued. The third season saw a shortened schedule and some early-season roster instability due to the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada, but the World Cup also provided exposure to the NWSL, which was credited with boosting attendance numbers across the league.
The league also became the first professional women's league in the US to play more than three seasons when the league kicked off its fourth season in 2016.
The 2020 season was initially postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and replaced with the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, a special competition hosted in the Salt Lake City region with no spectators. The cup began in late June, making the NWSL the first major U.S. team sports league to return to play. The league was the recipient of a federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which it used to compensate players before the competition was able to begin.
Nine NWSL teams are spread across the United States, with a tenth joining the league in 2021 and an eleventh in 2022. Each club is allowed a minimum of 20 players on their roster, with a maximum of 22 players (26 including supplemental players) allowed at any time during the season.
Originally, each team's roster included up to three allocated American national team players, up to two allocated Mexico women's national team players, and up to two allocated Canadian national team players via the NWSL Player Allocation and subsequent trades. In addition, each team has four spots each season available for international players; these spots may be traded to other teams. The remaining roster spots must be filled by domestic players from the United States. Teams fill their rosters via a number of drafts and 4–6 discovery player signings. Mexico no longer allocates players to the NWSL, having established its own women's league in 2017, and the numbers of allocated players and international players on each team vary each year due to trades.
Of the nine current teams, four are affiliated with men's Major League Soccer teams, one is affiliated with a men's USL Championship team, one is affiliated with a French Ligue 1 team (as well as its women's counterpart in the Division 1 Féminine), and three are independent. Of the two confirmed future teams, one is affiliated with a USLC team and the other is independent.
|Team||Stadium||Capacity||City||Founded||Joining||Head coach||Men's affiliate|
|Angel City FC||Banc of California Stadium||22,000||Los Angeles, California||2020||2022||TBA||—|
- Boston Breakers – 2013–2017 (NWSL franchise ceased operations)
- FC Kansas City – 2013–2017 (NWSL membership interest re-acquired by the league and subsequently ceased operations; its player-related assets were transferred to the expansion team Utah Royals FC)
- Western New York Flash – 2013–2016 (NWSL franchise sold and relocated as the North Carolina Courage; organization then played two seasons in the second-division United Women's Soccer before reverting to a youth-only club)
Soon after launch, the league reportedly planned to expand to ten teams for 2014. Potential candidates included groups not accepted as part of the original eight; groups from the Los Angeles area (joint effort from the LA Strikers and Pali Blues) and from Hartford, Connecticut, were confirmed failed bids, as was one from the Seattle Sounders Women. There was speculation that the Vancouver Whitecaps Women could be logical candidates especially given the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada; however, the Whitecaps shuttered their women's program (except for one U-18 academy team) in December 2012.
During the inaugural season, there were rumors of expansion interest from MLS teams Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and the New York Red Bulls, as well as confirmed interest from WPSL side the Houston Aces. NWSL team owners hinted that expansion for 2014 was not a question of "if" but "how many". Despite this, it was announced during the playoffs that there would be no expansion for the league's second season, though the Red Bulls and Sky Blue FC confirmed that they were in discussions for cooperation.
During the first offseason, the Houston Dynamo added their name to the list of MLS teams interested in fielding a women's side, stating that they were "exploring the opportunity" of starting an NWSL side in 2014 or '15 and in 2013 they announced the Houston Dash with 2014 as their inaugural season. By early December, NWSL approved a new team run by the Dynamo organization for expansion in 2014, despite their earlier statement that there would be no expansion for the league's second season.
During the second offseason, expansion talk grew rapidly, with three established men's teams (Real Salt Lake of MLS, the Indy Eleven of NASL, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of USL Pro) expressing interest in joining NWSL, as well as an unattached group from Atlanta. There was also rumored or suggested interest from three men's teams in California, though none of those groups made official statements. Despite this interest, it was announced in late April 2015 that there would be no expansion for the 2016 season.
However, after the well-publicized success of the US Women's National soccer team, renewed interest in NWSL expansion caused reports from the owners' meeting that "a new team in 2016 has not been ruled out", with potential expansion news to be revealed within a month. Commissioner Jeff Plush said that over a dozen interested groups had contacted the league in the post-World-Cup weeks; MLS team Orlando City SC was one of the first newly interested groups made public. On October 20, 2015, it was announced that Orlando would be hosting the 10th NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, due to start the 2016 season. At that announcement, the Pride announced that they had hired former U.S. National Women's Team coach Tom Sermanni.
On November 16, 2017, it was announced that Real Salt Lake would expand into the NWSL beginning in the 2018 season. The Salt Lake City team, shortly thereafter unveiled as Utah Royals FC, is officially considered a new franchise that replaced FC Kansas City. There were hopes but no plans for Sporting Kansas City to take over operations of FCKC, but Sporting KC was focused on sustainability with its United Soccer League reserve team, then known as Swope Park Rangers and now as Sporting Kansas City II.
The NWSL announced on October 22, 2019 that a team in Louisville, Kentucky, affiliated with the city's USL Championship side Louisville City FC, would join the league in 2021. The team was originally to be named Proof Louisville FC, but after significant disapproval from fans it was announced that the Proof Louisville FC branding would not necessarily be the final selection, and that the process to determine the team's identity would be restarted. On July 8, 2020, the Louisville team was rebranded as Racing Louisville FC, and its associated visual identity was announced on the same day. Racing will play in Lynn Family Stadium, which opened in 2020 as the new home of Louisville City.
On July 21, 2020, the NWSL announced that a Los Angeles-based team will begin play in 2022. The team's ownership group, who call themselves "Angel City," is led by president and founder Julie Uhrman, a media and gaming entrepreneur; co-founders Natalie Portman, an Oscar-winning actress, and venture capitalist Kara Nortman; venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian as lead founding investor; and additional investors including fourteen former USWNT members, most with ties to Southern California; actresses Uzo Aduba, Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner, and Eva Longoria; talk show host Lilly Singh; and Ohanian's wife, tennis great Serena Williams. In 2022, the Los Angeles NWSL team will be the first American professional sports team founded by a majority-woman ownership group to begin play, and co-founders Portman, Nortman, and Uhrman have publicly discussed their ownership stakes extensively as one way to address gender inequity in sports and to encourage additional investment by women into women's sports. On October 21, 2020, the ownership group announced that the expansion club would be called Angel City FC and announced more group members, among them tennis great Billie Jean King, WNBA star Candace Parker, alpine skiing great Lindsey Vonn and her fiancé, NHL star P. K. Subban, actress and activist Sophia Bush, Latin music pop star Becky G, actor and TV host James Corden, and former US men's soccer international Cobi Jones.
Stadiums and attendanceEdit
As of the most recent 2019 season, the NWSL uses nine primary stadiums, with two teams taking select matches to larger venues in their areas. The highest attendance in the league's history occurred on August 11, 2019 at Providence Park when a sellout crowd of 25,218 watched Portland Thorns FC defeat the visiting North Carolina Courage 2–1. Of the 10 most-attended matches in league history, only one was not at Providence Park: the first-ever home match for the Orlando Pride in 2016.
Squad formation and salariesEdit
In each season, teams receive a salary cap that limits their total spending on players. The salaries of allocated players from the United States, Canadian, and (formerly) Mexican national teams are paid by their respective federations instead of their NWSL clubs, and do not count against their club's salary cap.
Non-allocated players, including international players, also have minimum and maximum salary limits. Players allocated by the US and Canadian federations are exempt from these limits. The same applied to allocated Mexican players, but the arrangement between the Mexican federation and the NWSL ended when Mexico established its own women's league in 2017.
Starting in 2019, the maximum roster size was expanded to 22 and the minimum to 20, with an additional four supplemental spots for players earning minimum salary that do not count against the salary cap. With this change, teams must carry at least 20 players and could carry as many as 26 players at any given time.
The league introduced significant changes to its compensation guidelines before the 2020 season. In addition to a sizable increase in the salary cap and the salary limits for unallocated players, teams now can purchase up to $300,000 in "allocation money" in excess of the salary cap to invest in qualified current or future players; allocation money can be traded. Multi-year contracts (up to three years plus one option year) are now permitted, year-round housing becomes mandatory, and the cap for permitted team assistance has been removed.
|Year||Team cap||Unallocated player salary limits|
- All currency amounts are in USD
Active non-allocated players, including unpaid amateur players, announced their formation of a players' association on May 15, 2017, as the first step toward forming a union. Membership is limited to non-allocated players because allocated players are members of their own federation-affiliated labor organizations and negotiate contracts covering NWSL play with their respective national federations instead of the league or clubs. The association is led by civil rights attorney and former WPS players' union organizer Meghann Burke. The association was legally recognized by the NWSL on November 15, 2018, allowing players to bring formal requests to the league.
The winner of the NWSL Championship, the final match of the NWSL Playoffs, determines that season's league champion. The playoff tournament is organized by the league in a format similar to other North American professional sports leagues. At the conclusion of the regular season, the top six teams in the standings earn a berth to the tournament. Prior to 2021, only the top four teams qualified for the playoffs.
The first NWSL Championship was played on September 1, 2013. As of 2018, the record for the most championships is shared by the Portland Thorns FC and former club FC Kansas City, with two titles each. The record for the most championships lost is held by Reign FC, who have lost the title game two times since the inaugural season in 2013.
As of 2020[update], four clubs have been crowned NWSL Champions: Portland Thorns FC (2), FC Kansas City (2), North Carolina Courage (2), and Western New York Flash (1). Four clubs have claimed the NWSL Shield: North Carolina Courage (3), OL Reign (2), Portland Thorns FC (1), and Western New York Flash (1). In 2018, the North Carolina Courage became the first team to win both the NWSL Shield and the NWSL Championship in the same season.
Regular season winners
|Championship Location||Championship Attendance||Ref.|
|2013||Portland Thorns FC||Western New York Flash||Sahlen's Stadium, Rochester, New York||9,129|||
|2014||FC Kansas City||Seattle Reign FC||Starfire Sports Complex, Tukwila, Washington||4,252|||
|2015||FC Kansas City||Seattle Reign FC||Providence Park, Portland, Oregon||13,264|||
|2016||Western New York Flash||Portland Thorns FC||BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, Texas||8,255|||
|2017||Portland Thorns FC||North Carolina Courage||Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Florida||8,124|||
|2018||North Carolina Courage||North Carolina Courage||Providence Park, Portland, Oregon||21,144|||
|2019||North Carolina Courage||North Carolina Courage||Sahlen's Stadium, Cary, North Carolina||10,227|||
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the regular season from starting. Instead the league played the Challenge Cup starting in late June, which made the NWSL the first professional team sport in the U.S. to re-start during the pandemic, with all teams in a protective "bubble" in Salt Lake City. The Houston Dash won the Challenge Cup, topping the Chicago Red Stars in the final.
In September and October 2020, the league played the Fall Series, in which the nine teams were divided into three geographic "pods"; each team played home-and-away round robin within its pod. The Portland Thorns won the Fall Series and the associated trophy, the Verizon Community Shield.
|Season||NWSL Challenge Cup||NWSL Community Shield|
|2020||Houston Dash||Portland Thorns FC|
During the 2013–2016 seasons, the majority of league games were available for viewing via YouTube or via individual team's websites. Of the eight teams in the league during the inaugural season, the Boston Breakers were the only team that charged a fee for access to their broadcasts.
On May 28, 2014, the NWSL signed a one-year agreement with ESPN to televise nine games of the 2014 NWSL season. The matches included three regular season and three playoff matches on ESPN2, as well as 3 regular season games live-streamed on ESPN3.
On June 30, 2015, the NWSL announced a one-year agreement with Fox Sports once more to cover ten matches. Three regular season and three playoff matches were televised on FS1, and four live-streamed on Fox Sports Go. The agreement was extended into 2016 under another one-year contract, covering three regular season matches and the three playoff matches, once again on FS1.
On February 2, 2017, the NWSL announced a three-year agreement with A&E Networks, in which the Lifetime network broadcast 22 regular-season matches as the NWSL Game of the Week at 4 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday afternoons, as well as three post-season matches. This marked the first time that the NWSL had a weekly broadcast window throughout the entire season. As part of the deal, A&E Networks purchased a 25% equity stake in the NWSL and were granted two seats on the league's board. The company also formed a joint venture with the league known as NWSL Media to oversee the league's marketing and broadcast rights, and Lifetime became a league-wide kit sponsor for all players. This deal marked the first time Lifetime had broadcast sports since the WNBA in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lifetime also streamed the game of the week in the United States via its website, and internationally in the NWSL website and iOS app. The remaining games were initially streamed exclusively by go90 in the United States under a digital rights deal with Verizon Communications, and through the NWSL website internationally.
The quality of the streams through go90 faced criticism, with sportswriters, users, and players and team staff criticizing the service for its inconsistent quality and arguing that the NWSL's growth could be harmed by go90's relative lack of reach and prominence when compared to YouTube. The Equalizer noted that the app was prone to crashing, did not have the same wide device support as YouTube, and that the telecasts themselves suffered from their own technical problems (such as poor camera angles and glitches with graphics), but that the streams were good when they worked. On May 19, 2017, the league announced that they would additionally stream games on the NWSL website and app in the U.S. until the technical issues with go90 were rectified.
After Houston Dash player Rachel Daly collapsed on the pitch after a match in Houston, on May 27 – where the heat index was reportedly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit – she was carried off on a stretcher and hospitalized for heat illness. League operations director Amanda Duffy subsequently announced that the NWSL Game of the Week matches, many of which were slated for the hottest parts of the day in humid cities such as Houston, Orlando, and Cary, North Carolina, would be rescheduled to allow for longer hydration breaks. Some Game of the Week matches changed to other venues, and teams not scheduled for television were granted more flexibility in rescheduling kickoffs for player safety. The league also adopted new procedures for addressing heat and rescheduling matches.
On June 6, 2018, it was announced that six Game of the Week matches through the remainder of the season would move to evening kickoffs and air on ESPNews (which is owned by a sister venture to A&E Networks), in an effort to ensure the safety of players, as well as improve attendance. Go90 shut down in July 2018; the remaining games not aired on television were moved back to the NWSL website for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.
On February 20, 2019, the NWSL announced that A&E Networks had pulled out of its broadcasting agreement with the league one season early. A&E's stake in NWSL Media was given back to the league, but Lifetime will remain a kit sponsor. NWSL president Amanda Duffy said the changes would give the league and its teams finer control over its media and sponsorship agreements, and expected to announce a new television rights deal soon. Verizon Media remained the U.S. digital rightsholder to the league, but the streams moved from go90 to the Yahoo! Sports website and apps.
The NWSL did not reach any national television deals before the start of the 2019 season, but after their opening match, the Chicago Red Stars reached their own television deal with the regional sports network NBC Sports Chicago. In July 2019, the NWSL announced that ESPN had acquired a 14-match package for the remainder of the season divided among ESPNews and ESPN2, including the semifinals and championship match.
In October 2019, the NWSL signed the agency Octagon to market its media rights. It was reported that Octagon was pursuing multi-year agreements of at least three years and stronger broadcaster commitments, as to help build an audience and discourage broadcasters from acquiring NWSL rights to ride the coattails of the U.S. national team and the FIFA Women's World Cup, but then "abandon" it afterward.
On March 11, 2020, the NWSL announced that it has entered into a three-year media agreement with CBS Sports and the video game-oriented streaming service Twitch. For the 2020 season, CBS Sports planned to broadcast 87 matches (including the playoffs) split between CBS, CBS Sports Network, and CBS All Access in Canada and the United States, with the exact distribution among the channels subject to change, while Twitch planned to stream an additional 24 matches for free. Twitch also became the NWSL's international media rights holder and stream all matches outside Canada and the United States for free.
On May 27, 2020, the NWSL announced that it will return from the COVID-19 pandemic with the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup tournament. All Challenge cup matches will be live on CBS All Access subscription service in the US and Canada and will re-air on CBS Sports Network, while CBS broadcast both opening and final matches. Fans outside the US and Canada will also be able to stream all 23 live matches for free on Twitch, as the part of NWSL broadcasting rights package.
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Bold indicates active NWSL players.
Throughout the season, the league awards Player of the Week and Player of the Month awards to individual players, which are voted on by the media. The league presents six annual awards for outstanding achievements voted on by owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media (current holders in parentheses):
- Golden Boot (Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars)
- Rookie of the Year (Bethany Balcer, Reign FC)
- Goalkeeper of the Year (Aubrey Bledsoe, Washington Spirit)
- Defender of the Year (Becky Sauerbrunn, Utah Royals FC)
- Coach of the Year (Vlatko Andonovski, Reign FC)
- Most Valuable Player (Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars)
In addition, the league names a NWSL Best XI team and NWSL Second XI team, which are voted on by journalists, club officials and NWSL players.
|Amanda Duffy||2016–2018||Managing director of operations|
Former general manager of the United States women's national soccer team Cheryl Bailey was announced by US Soccer President Sunil Gulati as the first commissioner of the NWSL on November 29, 2012. On November 18, 2014, she resigned after overseeing two seasons and the launch of the new professional league in less than five months ahead of the inaugural season.
On January 6, 2015, Jeff Plush, managing director of Colorado Rapids and a former MLS board member, was named as Bailey's successor. Plush oversaw the 2015 and 2016 seasons, including the Orlando Pride expansion, a broadcast partnership with A+E Networks (including the three-year broadcast deal with Lifetime television), and the sale of the Western New York Flash to North Carolina FC owner Stephen Malik and the team's relocation to North Carolina. During his tenure, former Louisville City FC president Amanda Duffy was hired in December 2016 as the NWSL's managing director of operations.
Plush resigned as commissioner on March 2, 2017, and the position has remained vacant, although Duffy has served as the public face of league management since then. On January 15, 2019, Duffy was promoted to president, the league's highest office.
On January 7, 2020, Amanda Duffy announced that she would leave the NWSL for a leadership position at the Orlando Pride on February 15, 2020. On February 27, 2020, the NWSL announced that Lisa Baird, chief marketing officer of the New York Public Radio, will become the league's commissioner on March 10, 2020.
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