As the National Women's Soccer League embarks on its 11th season, it'll hardly be business as usual.
With the abuse allegations and fallout now in the rearview, the league is ready to move on, and part of that will be showing that the problems of the past are being addressed and the league's culture has evolved to be safer for players. But the other part of moving on is being able to focus primarily on the soccer.
To that end, the stakes have been raised in 2023 for the topflight women's league in the U.S., with the debut of VAR, a Women's World Cup happening in midseason, new coaches and the potential for new dominant teams raising the stakes on the soccer side for the NWSL in 2023. There are no new expansion teams this year -- two teams are expected to be added next season -- but there's been enough shuffling of players and a dizzying coach carousel to make many teams feel new.
The NWSL's 2023 season opens Saturday, March 25, when the North Carolina Courage host the Kansas City Current, and all of the league's 12 teams will be in action this weekend. Here are the key talking points ahead of the new season.
Moving on from abuse headlines as World Cup looms large
Hanging over the entirely of last season were allegations of abuse by coaches that emerged toward the end of 2021, which prompted investigations from U.S. Soccer and the league itself. Those investigations both came out last year, revealing a culture where team owners and executives knew about inappropriate behavior and enabled it.
Multiple coaches have been barred from coaching. The owners of the Portland Thorns (Merritt Paulson) and the Chicago Red Stars (Arnim Whisler), who both were identified in investigations as knowingly allowing abuse, have vowed to sell their teams. A number of new policies and safeguards have been put in place or are in the process of being implemented with the help of the NWSL Players Association.
And now, everyone hopes, the league can fully move on from this difficult chapter and get back to the soccer.
The league might get some help in the form of the Women's World Cup this summer in Australia and New Zealand. The World Cup tends to be a disruption -- national team players will leave their NWSL clubs as early as June 26 for the tournament, which starts on July 21, and the league will take almost six weeks off while the tournament goes on.
But the post-World Cup "bump" for the NWSL in terms of new fans, bigger attendances and more attention has been undeniable after the previous two World Cups. That influx of new fans and fresh eyes could be just what the NWSL needs to turn the page. -- Murray
Will the managerial carousel finally stop spinning?
Owing in a large part to the aforementioned allegations of abuse, 2022 was a season of great upheaval and multiple managerial changes over the course of the season. Coming into 2023, there are again a number of new and returning managerial appointments. In fact, one-third of NWSL teams are heading into unknown territory, from Laura Harvey's former assistant Sam Laity taking charge of the Houston Dash to Juan Carlos Amorós' move to NJ/NY Gotham FC, Mike Norris' promotion to head coach at the Thorns and Mark Parsons' return to the Washington Spirit, as well as Seb Hines taking charge of the Orlando Pride on a full-time basis.
But at a time when coaches are given shorter and shorter spells before being ousted when results aren't favorable, how much time is too much time before teams are willing to shuffle the deck yet again? The upheaval and fallout off the pitch last year from the abuse allegations had a sizable impact, but now there will be the added challenge of World Cup disruptions and expected player turnover to contend with as well.
Give all that, those in positions of power need to be mindful of not coming across as hasty in rushing to judgment. Because of the large-scale team rebuilds and/or roster reboots needed in some cases, this is a season where teams might benefit from resisting the urge to take another spin on the managerial carousel without reasonable cause. In this league, and this season, stability could be a real asset. -- Lawson
The NWSL will debut VAR in 2023, but will it fix referee problems?
The NWSL will become the first professional women's soccer league in the world to introduce video assist refereeing, or VAR, in the hopes of alleviating years-long complaints about the quality of the refereeing in the league. The firm hired by the NWSL, Hawk-Eye Innovations, already works in some NWSL stadiums with Major League Soccer teams, and the company has also worked with the Premier League and FIFA, the governing body of soccer. So, if VAR can fix the NWSL's refereeing woes, then this season's implementation should be successful.
The question, though, is whether this will end the complaints about refereeing or merely change them. The NWSL has been stuck with a pool of referees who are less experienced than those in the pool for MLS, its top counterpart in the U.S., and while the league has vowed to increase its investment in developing referees, it might be a long process. It's unclear just how well those efforts have gone in the short term since they were announced in the offseason, or how long it might take.
After all, reviewing video footage after the fact is undoubtedly helpful for referees, but as we've seen in other leagues with VAR, wrong calls still happen, and the training and experience for VAR officials will be the key. -- Murray
Cascadia's dominance could be poised for an end
With longtime powerhouse the North Carolina Courage going through their own rebuild last season in the fallout of the abuse investigations, the Portland Thorns and OL Reign in Seattle continued their run of bringing either the Shield or Championship back to the Pacific Northwest. The only seasons without either trophy landing in the Cascadia region were when the Courage managed the double in 2018 and 2019.
Yet, strong debut seasons last year from Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave, and the Kansas City Current's impressive roster building in this offseason suggest that the league is only getting tougher with more competition for spots at the top. For the California expansion teams, that extra year of experience in the league could be the difference, while Kansas City has signed the likes of Swedish wing-back Hanna Glas, Brazilian star Debinha and No. 2 overall college draft pick Michelle Cooper.
North Carolina looks unlikely to surge to its former glory now that Debinha and stars Diana Ordonez, Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett all departed in this offseason, so the Courage might not be the ones who can get in Cascadia's way this season. It's unlikely that the Reign or the Thorns will simply drop off in 2023, but they'll be facing trickier opposition from coast to coast this season. -- Lawson
Longtime basement dwellers are due for a boost
From Racing Louisville, who have had back-to-back ninth place finishes in their first two years, to the Orlando Pride, who've finished above seventh only once in their six NWSL seasons, there are a number of teams that have repeatedly struggled to lead with their best foot.
Although the Washington Spirit will be hoping their 11th-place finish last season is the outlier after winning the NWSL Championship in 2021, there are deeper questions around teams like Orlando and NJ/NY Gotham.
Formerly known as Sky Blue FC, Gotham are a team that has rebranded but not successfully rebuilt itself yet, though there should be plenty of positivity around the club following the hire of former Houston Dash interim manager Juan Carlos Amorós. Similarly for the Pride, it's about the rebuild that Hines will oversee as coach in a bid to correct the fortunes of a team that has consistently struggled for collective performances.
The job for Laity in Houston is a slightly different one, as the team was righted last season by Amorós, but for a coach stepping into his first head coaching role, he has plenty to prove. At Racing, it's about the caliber of player Kim Björkegren has brought in to address the failings of the team during his first season in charge.
When looking at every team's roster, and with the caveat of the incoming World Cup, there's no reason why any team should struggle to compete with the players available to its managers. As a result, we might finally see teams like Gotham and the Pride race up the table and cement themselves higher up. -- Lawson
Herculez Gomez questions the FIFA 23 NWSL best XI as the #1 pick of the 2022 draft Naomi Girma is left out.
NWSL Challenge Cup drama returns but evolves again
The NWSL Challenge Cup, an annual stand-alone competition for all teams, started in 2020 as a pandemic-prompted replacement for a normal regular season. By the time it became feasible to have NWSL teams traveling for a regular season again, no one wanted to say goodbye to the Challenge Cup, which was fun and unpredictable, so the league brought it back as a preseason tournament in 2021 and 2022. Now, this league-wide tournament is evolving again for 2023.
Instead of being played as a condensed, one-month tournament before the start of the season, the Challenge Cup will run concurrently with the regular season over six weeks from April through September, with a winner being decided in the final on Sept. 9.
What is the point of the Challenge Cup, then? Why is there a separate trophy available to NWSL teams beyond those awarded to the best team in the regular season (NWSL Shield) and the overall playoff winner (NWSL Championship)? Well, it's fun, for a start, and it's another chance for teams to win hardware in a women's soccer landscape that lacks a domestic cup, like a U.S. Open Cup equivalent or a CONCACAF Champions League. With prize money of $300,000 for the winner funded by a sponsorship with UKG, expect the players to compete like it matters. -- Murray