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NWSL Turns Unorthodox Year Into Opportunity

NWSL and its new commissioner had to get creative to come up with a 2020 plan, but the end result was a pair of competitions that showcased a strong product that didn't rely on all the household names.

When the coronavirus shut down American sports in March, the NWSL had barely started preseason for its eighth season. Left in the lurch of a pandemic with no clear end in sight, it soon became obvious the league's anticipated April–November regular season couldn't go on as planned. 

In response, new commissioner Lisa Baird got creative. The first Challenge Cup was born, with eight of the league's nine teams traveling to Utah for a month-long tournament that ultimately produced zero positive COVID-19 cases in the bubble. Afterward, the league then salvaged some autumn action with a Community Shield fall series, with teams competing for a top-three finish that would earn money for a small business or organization in their community. That fall series wrapped up on Saturday, officially bringing the NWSL's 2020 on-field action to a close. 

We learned a lot in the league's most unorthodox season yet—one that ultimately looks to have been a successful one. From the team of the summer to what's next on the horizon, let's look at the NWSL's top storylines of the last few months, and take a glimpse into the future:


Houston Dash: Team of (2020) Destiny

You can't talk about the NWSL in 2020 without talking about the Dash. Arriving in Utah for the Challenge Cup as an afterthought in both betting odds and general buzz, Houston wound up as the story of the summer on the field. A franchise that has never made the NWSL playoffs and had never played in an elimination match in its six previous seasons ended up winning the whole thing (and took home additional first-time hardware in the form of Cup MVP and Golden Boot winner Rachel Daly), capturing the attention of the league and earning the respect it sought as a roster full of chip-on-your-shoulder vets.

Despite the absence of Daly on a short-term loan to West Ham in her native England, Houston proceeded to turn the four-game fall series into its own personal celebration tour, taking advantage of weakened North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride rosters to go 3-1-0 and take second in the standings (first place in the Community Shield went to the Portland Thorns). But it's how the Dash won that was most intriguing. Showing off a high-powered attack led by Kristie Mewis, Shea Groom, Sophie Schmidt and Nichelle Prince, Houston scored 12 goals across those four games (it scored 21 goals in 24 games in 2019, for the record) and routinely gave viewers their figurative money's worth, whether it was through soaring Groom headers or Mewis's left-footed wizardry.

As great as 2020 was for the Dash as an organization, the impact of its rise goes beyond Houston. After back-to-back seasons of Courage dominance and the same four teams making the playoffs, the NWSL desperately needed an infusion of new blood and new storylines. The Dash provided that in a big way—as did new league initiatives like the Challenge Cup and the Community Shield—but they weren't alone. Which brings us to...

Fresh faces and new emerging stars

One of the main things the 2020 NWSL structure provided for was a chance for different players—whether it was young ones breaking onto the scene or veterans stepping out of the shadows—to enter the spotlight. Sure, there were giants like Debinha, Marta and Julie Ertz bossing the pitch, but in many ways, the league's standouts of 2020 were unexpected.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than Vlatko Andonovski's 27-player U.S. women's national team October camp roster. With several core stars on loan overseas, there was room for him to expand the usual pool, and it's hard not to view it at least partially as a response to those who impressed at either the Challenge Cup (where Andonovski attended every game in person) or the fall series. Whether it was Houston midfielders Groom and Mewis, Washington Spirit rookie midfielder Ashley Sanchez, Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden and forward Kealia Watt, Sky Blue defender/forward Midge Purce, OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer or Thorns rookie forward Sophia Smith, the recent NWSL influence can be felt deeply across the roster. And even outside of camp call-ups, players like Spirit defender Paige Nielsen, Utah rookie Tziarra King, Sky Blue midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe and forward Ifeoma Onumonu and Thorns goalie Britt Eckerstrom all made the most of the opportunity the year presented.

With so many USWNT stars opting out of either the Challenge Cup, the fall series or both (for example, the NWSL in 2020 went without Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd taking the field), the natural concern was whether this would be to the detriment of the momentum the league has been building since the 2019 Women's World Cup. Those players are still the easiest way for the NWSL to draw in casual viewers and grow its fanbase, and with a new TV deal with CBS on the table, proving the league was a draw even without them was a must.

So what happened? In a year when many U.S. pro sports leagues suffered in relative viewership amid a pandemic and unusual calendars, the NWSL's first foray onto CBS was a big hit. It set league ratings records in the two Challenge Cup games that aired on the channel (527,000 for the opener, 653,000 for the final), and its weekly fall series games that were broadcast on CBS or streamed on Twitch held their own even while going against the likes of college football and MLB. Despite many top players being absent, the fall series produced several entertaining bouts, such as Orlando coming back from a 3–0 hole to tie North Carolina on Saturday, or the Courage's wild 4–3 win over the Dash in September. 

In 2020, the NWSL proved it can succeed even when missing some of its biggest names—and proved there is a market regardless of how familiar viewers previously were with many of the players on the field. A season like this should only help the league's popularity going forward, especially as fans grow attached to a wider pool of names and faces.

The fight for racial justice

The most important thing to come out of the NWSL's 2020 season was the Black player movement within it. Kicking off just one month after the police killing of George Floyd first sparked outrage and protests across America, the Challenge Cup—as the first U.S pro league back amid the pandemic—automatically took on a bigger meaning. 

While the league has been far from perfect in vocalizing support for racial equality this year, the image of Courage and Thorns players kneeling en masse for the national anthem before the Cup's debut game on CBS while wearing Black Lives Matter shirts was a powerful one. More powerful, though, were the words this spring and summer of Black NWSL players like North Carolina's Crystal Dunn (who challenged “coaches, announcers and commentators to change the stereotypes and narratives of Black men and women in sports”); King, the Utah rookie (who has repeatedly spoken out against racial injustice and, later, her own team's ownership); Chicago’s Gorden (who posted that she will stand for the anthem again “when the country looks the same for my Black son as it does for your white son/daughter”); and former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough (who has long advocated for the importance of kneeling and using your platform as an athlete against racism), along with many others.

In late August, after Royals owner Dell Loy Hanson's ignominious remarks about MLS protests, the Black players of the NWSL joined together to amplify King's message and say they are “united in the ongoing fight against police brutality and systemic racism.” This month, they announced the formation of a Black Women's Player Collective. While it shouldn't be the responsibility of its Black players—a minority group in both the league and in women's soccer as a whole—to push the NWSL forward, white fans and players alike should learn from the lead they took in 2020. 

So what's next?

After an abbreviated, broken-up season, the NWSL offseason has begun earlier than initially planned (the original 2020 championship game was scheduled for Nov. 14). An expansion draft now looms on Nov. 12, when Racing Louisville FC—the league's lone addition for 2021—will get to build a roster from unprotected players among the established nine teams. 

With a trade window open until Oct. 22, it won't be surprising to see some moves in the coming days as coaches jockey to make decisions on whom to protect (i.e., who to make Louisville unable to select in the expansion draft) and who could extract value in a trade rather than being lost with no compensation. In particular, the Red Stars face an interesting dilemma. While the league has yet to announce official rules on how many players each team can protect, Chicago likely will only be able to protect two of its five U.S. allocated players. Ertz will no doubt be one of them, but settling on its second player out of Tierna Davidson, Casey Short, Alyssa Naeher and Morgan Gautrat seems much more complicated. As does Paul Riley's decision in North Carolina, where one of team stalwarts Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis will likely need to be either traded or left unprotected.

After the expansion draft, all eyes will turn to the annual NWSL college draft in January—which typically brings a flurry of deals with it. With some of the players currently abroad not coming back for the start of the 2021 season (such as Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Morgan, Press and Heath) and an Olympic year looming, expect some significant movement. 

Beyond Louisville's arrival, more growth is in the offing. Angel City and its loaded ownership group will take center stage in 2022, while further expansion to Sacramento is still reportedly in the mix. What could have been a lost year turned into one of opportunity, and the anticipation will keep building for what's on the way.