Photo Copyright Geoff Burke for USA TODAY Sports
The 2023 National Women’s Soccer League season kicks off on Saturday, and with it comes an amalgamation of excitement and question marks.
To get you ready for the year ahead — as the NWSL officially turns 10 years old on the field — we break down 11 big talking points to watch.
VAR: Video Assistant Referees join the fold
Saturday’s season kickoff will feature the debut of VAR (Video Assisted Referee) which will help further bring the NWSL into the modern era. What will this mean? At its best, it will mean awarding penalties for obvious handballs the referee misses, and the end of penalties called for phantom handballs (hello Becky Sauerbrunn on 2018 opening weekend). And at some point, a call that would have been incorrect that truly changes a game or season will be made right.
At worst, VAR will mean some lengthy delays, subdued celebrations, and some goals called back for offside based on the narrowest of margins. And at some point, there will be a VAR call that does not have universal agreement, even among experts.
One thing to get out of the way now is that with VAR comes delayed offside flags. The idea is sound, because you can call a goal back but you cannot reinstate a play once it gets blown dead. So, keep that in mind the first few times the flag looks like it came in very late.
The World Cup bump
It is indisputable that every World Cup has resulted in a bump to the domestic leagues here in the United States. That includes WPS and Major League Soccer. It will be difficult to match the excitement of the last two tournaments, especially with this one happening at awkward hours for Americans.
On the flip side, access to global women’s soccer has exploded since 2019, giving fans more emotional ties to players from all over the world. That should lessen the burden on the United States to win it in order to maximize the impact.
The league just launched an ad campaign highlighting all of the global stars who ply their trade in NWSL. That’s a good start for a league that during the last two World Cups appeared to be somewhere between unaware and unprepared for their respective aftermaths.
The World Cup bump will happen. The questions are: How big will it be? And what will the lasting impact look like?
This was discussed in an earlier column, but at this point, there is no logical reason for NWSL to pull the trigger on a new media deal until after the World Cup. That’s when the property will be hottest, and when it will be most evident that putting on a really good television show goes a long way toward making your league into a big deal.
Nothing on this front will have a direct impact on the 2023 season, but you never know if the next deal will be the one that vaults the league to the next level. Taking into account some of the issues discussed yesterday, NWSL should be as well–positioned as it has ever been to make at least a medium-sized splash.
What will 2024 look like?
We already know that Utah Royals FC will rejoin the league as an expansion club in 2024. A Bay Area club is expected to be announced soon. There is also a Boston bid expected to be accepted but likely for 2025 or beyond. There are pending sales in Chicago and Portland.
The Royals and the Bay Area group have no doubt been working toward 2024 launches for some time, but it is still getting tight for a formal announcement on the second in order to have proper time to be truly ready. This is an issue that plagued NWSL early but has been better with prior expansion clubs in Louisville, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
The new teams will also require a tweak to the schedule—an increase to 26 matches under the same double-round-robin format seems logical—and possibly even the creation of divisions for the first time. It is not vital that this be set up ahead of the end of 2023, but it would be nice if it was.
As for the Red Stars and Thorns, it won’t be a good look if either sale lingers through the World Cup and NWSL Championship, especially if one of the teams is in the championship match. Getting the right fit is more important than fast-tracking the process, but also—it needs to get done.
Can we focus on soccer?
New ownership in Chicago and Portland is part of NWSL trying to move past heinous abuse scandals that surfaced in 2021 and dogged the league through the early part of 2023 when sanctions were announced. It will never be “over” as moving on requires work and vigilance. But at some point, it would be nice if the top headlines centered on soccer.
In 2022, two head coaches and an assistant were suspended and then fired as a result of issues brought up by the NWSL/NWSL PA Joint Investigation. Another head coach resigned after the season despite an investigation turning up no specific wrongdoing. These transgressions paled in comparison to the ones turned up in 2021 but that is still one-quarter of the league’s head coaches at this time a year ago having been caught up in it. How many will there be in 2023? We can only hope the answer is zero.
Stats nerds like me in particular, love to focus on attendance. The league clearly feels this will be strong in 2023 with commissioner Jessica Berman touting in her press conference Monday that season-ticket sales have already surpassed 2022. And in case you forgot, 2022 ended with a bang when all four hosted playoff matches drew spectacular crowds ahead of a near-sellout at Audi Field for the NWSL Championship. (those numbers do not count for average attendance.)
For this year in particular there are a few spots worth watching. The most interesting to me is San Diego. The Wave were at 6,000-seat Torero Stadium until their final two games and a playoff match at Snapdragon Stadium. Those three games averaged more than 25,000. It will be interesting to see where the Wave land with a full season at Snapdragon.
Angel City burst on the scene and promptly unseated the Thorns as NWSL attendance queens. How they will do in year two will be fun to watch. As for the Thorns, they enter this season in a similar state of limbo with an ownership group the fans have rebelled against. How will that play out in 2023 and beyond?
I’ll keep saying it until it happens or the format changes, but I cannot believe the season is about to start and we don’t have a venue announced for the final. This really needs to start changing. As it stands, the league hasn’t actually formally committed to the predetermined format beyond this season, although Berman recently indicated it is likely to stay, calling the final the NWSL’s Super Bowl event. But truly making it such will require longer runways into the match and surrounding events.
If I had to bet on where I’ll be on Nov. 11, my money is on Los Angeles. But don’t go booking any travel based on that, please.
The Challenge Cup has finally been put in its proper place on the calendar. The trick now is to convince fans of its importance, especially with so much of it happening while the World Cup players are absent. The format probably needs further tweaking, and bringing in teams from outside NWSL would be cool. For now though, we can look forward to April 19 when the fourth edition of the tournament will kick off.
What else do I need to know for 2023?
We have a few name changes for stadiums. Angel City now plays at BMO Stadium (was Banc of California) and the Dash now play at Shell Energy Stadium (was BBVA Stadium).
International viewers can now access matches through the league’s website, nwslsoccer.com through a new arrangement with Endeavor Streaming. International distributors DAZN and Tigo will also distribute matches in select countries. There is no more Twitch.
On the pitch, NWSL teams quietly opened the door for underage players to train with clubs and sign contracts. For this season, Chloe Ricketts, 15, signed with the Washington Spirit and the Wave have agreed with Melanie Barcenas, also 15. Angel City also had U-18 trialists in camp.
Elsewhere, some new names may actually be familiar players. Mallory Swanson (nee Pugh) is on the top of that list. Others include Haley McCutcheon (nee Hanson), Mandy Haught (nee McGlynn) and Katie Lind (nee Naughton).
And another cool note is that four players are in range to reach 200 regular season matches played this season. Lauren Barnes (189) leads McCall Zerboni (188) but Merritt Mathias (183) and Jess McDonald (178) are next in line.
Who will win the Shield?
For the second straight season, the playoff race figures to be wide open. Extended World Cup absences make handicapping things more difficult than usual. But I am picking the Wave to rise to the top in their second season. There will be some holes for sure over the summer, especially in central defense and goal, and they will be relying on Alex Morgan to stay healthy over the course of a very long season. But they are well coached and should be able to build well on what they started in 2022. The Wave also had a solid rookie class last season and I’d expect those players to keep getting better.
Here’s how I’m predicting the table to finish up:
1. Wave – see above
2. Current – ambitious owners have put together a top side
3. Reign – for the Reign and Laura Harvey, it’s all about the playoffs
4. Thorns – how much will a full year of Crystal Dunn help?
5. Gotham – roster is too good for a repeat of last year…right?
6. Spirit – Rodman, Sanchez, Parsons restore some order for ’21 champs
7. Angel City – would not surprise me if they wind up in the playoffs
8. Louisville – heading in the right direction for sure
9. Dash – did not improve roster enough after breakthrough season
10. Pride – the play hard for Hines, but just not good enough
11. Red Stars – just took too many roster hits to expect any more
12. Courage – were porous defensively before losing Erceg and Pickett
Who will win everything else?
I’ll take the Wave to win the double by beating the Current in the NWSL Championship—at their rival’s home grounds in Los Angeles.
I’m taking a shot with Angel City to win the Challenge Cup, though. They are tough to play against and should be solid during World Cup absences.
MVP – Debinha
Defender of the Year – Naomi Girma
Goalkeeper of the Year – Phallon Tullis-Joyce
Coach of the Year – Juan Carlos Amoros
Rookie of the Year – Michelle Cooper