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
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 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.