By Anne M. Peterson/AP Sports Writer
The National Women’s Soccer League embarks on its 11th season this weekend with players looking to capitalize on the excitement building ahead of the Women’s World Cup while also trying to move on from the turbulence of the last two seasons.
“It’s a big year of women’s soccer with the World Cup and a really exciting NWSL schedule and NWSL teams this year, so hopefully it stays that way,” OL Reign defender Alana Cook said. “And hopefully the narrative can just be about that.”
The pro women’s league has been rocked for the past two seasons by a series of allegations of misconduct and abuse by coaches. The fallout has been a reckoning for soccer in the United States, with U.S. Soccer and the NWSL both having launched investigations into the scandals.
The NWSL has put several programs in place to prevent abuse, including a reporting system and the professionalization of the league’s human resource department, which visited every team in the preseason. All 12 teams must designate a player safety officer.
Commissioner Jessica Berman said she’s spoken with players who say they’re exhausted from having to address the misconduct — they’re ready to put the focus on soccer. And it’s a big year for the game because of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand starting on July 20.
“I think it’s their hope that we at the league and through ownership and management can really take on the burden and work behind the scenes to offer the playing environment that meets the standard that certainly I’ve committed to, which is a place that makes the players proud to play,” Berman said.
The Portland Thorns are the defending NWSL champions, having won their third league title with a 2-0 victory over the Kansas City Current last year.
Portland is also among the favorites this season because of a loaded roster that includes national team players like Sophia Smith, Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn. Smith was the NWSL’s Most Valuable Player and also the title game MVP.
“This is a special group. It’s hard to put a word on what it is. I think it’s the character of all the players. We all love each other, we’re close and we trust each other,” Smith said. “It’s a similar group coming back from last year so we know what it takes. And the new players, we’ve made clear what it takes. It’s going to take all of us and it’s going to take a lot of work but it’s also an exciting and fun process.”
RIDING THE WAVE
The San Diego Wave became the first expansion team to make the playoffs last season, paced by forward Alex Morgan with a league-leading 16 goals.
The Wave also set an NWSL record for attendance at a standalone match when the club drew a sellout crowd of 32,000 to Snapdragon Stadium for a match against rival Angel City in September.
“This team and club has high hopes and has just set the bar and we want to continue to do that with the home opener attendance record, and just continue on that run of of breaking records,” Morgan said.
The NWSL this month announced its 13th team, a reboot of the Utah Royals.
The first Royals team played from 2018-20 after starting as FC Kansas City but folded when owner Dell Loy Hansen announced he was selling the Royals and Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake amid scandal. That Royals then became the Kansas City Current.
As part of the deal to buy RSL, the new owners had rights for an NWSL expansion team. The new Royals will join the league next season.
The league is expected to announce another expansion club in the San Francisco Bay Area for 2024, while another franchise is expected to be awarded to Boston in the future.
Mike Norris was promoted to head coach of the Thorns after Rhian Wilkinson parted ways with the team because of inappropriate communication with a player. Sam Laity, an OL Reign assistant, has taken over at the Houston Dash, and Juan Carlos Amoros is now coach at Gotham.
Seb Hines, an interim coach with the Orlando Pride for part of last season, earned the job outright in the offseason, and Mark Parsons, who coached the Washington Spirit from 2013-15, has returned to the club after stints with the Thorns and the Dutch national team.
Teams are taking advantage of a new rule that opened the door for players younger than 18 to sign with league clubs.
The Wave on Tuesday signed the league’s youngest-ever player, 15-year-old Melanie Barcenas. At 15 years and 138 days, Barcenas is younger than Chloe Ricketts, who was 15 years and 283 days old when she signed with the Washington Spirit earlier this month. Olivia Moultrie was 15 years and 286 days when she signed with the Thorns in June 2021.
Under the rule, young players must live with a parent or legal guardian until they’re 18. They cannot be traded to another team without the consent of a parent or guardian.
The league is adding a video assistant referee this season to review certain plays, including goals and penalties.
“This is a really big deal. Not just because we know that we have to, and are committed to elevating the officiating, the quality of officiating, in our game, and that it requires significant investment and our board has authorized that investment. But also because we are the first ever women’s professional league to commit to invest in VAR for the professionals,” Berman said.
TEAM CAPSULE PREVIEWS
KANSAS CITY CURRENT
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 10-6-6, lost to the Portland Thorns in the title game.
COACH: Matt Potter.
KEY PLAYERS: Debinha, Desiree Scott, AD Franch.
OUTLOOK: The Current opened last season hoping new acquisitions Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams would take the team to the next level but both sustained season-ending injuries. Williams has since moved on to Racing Louisville and Mewis’ injury has proven more serious. She’s already been ruled out for the season. Even without those two, the Current finished fifth in the league and went on to play in the championship game, where they lost to the Thorns. The Current made a big move in the offseason, signing Brazilian midfielder Debinha.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 10-3-9, won the NWSL title over the Kansas City Current.
COACH: Mike Norris.
KEY PLAYERS: Sophia Smith, Christine Sinclair, Crystal Dunn.
OUTLOOK: The Thorns defeated the Kansas City Current 2-0 to win last season’s NWSL title, the team’s third. They also won it in 2013, the league’s first season, and again in 2017. Forward Sophia Smith was named the NWSL MVP last season as well as the championship game MVP. The team parted ways with coach Rhian Wilkinson after she self-reported inappropriate communication with a player. Portland promoted assistant Mike Norris to head coach for the 2023 season. The Thorns have a loaded roster, which this season could prove problematic with many players headed to the World Cup.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 11-4-7, lost to the Kansas City Current in the semifinals.
COACH: Laura Harvey.
KEY PLAYERS: Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, Alana Cook
OUTLOOK: The Reign won the Supporters Shield for the third time last season. But the Reign fell to the Kansas City Current in the playoffs. The Reign have three players who have been with the team since the start of the league in 2013: Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes. Laura Harvey is the winningest coach in NWSL history. Still, the Reign have never won a title. The team made Lumen Field, home of the MLS Sounders and the NFL’s Seahawks, their permanent home field last season. The Reign will play a doubleheader with the Sounders on June 3.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 5-9-8, ninth in the standings.
COACH: Kim Bjorkegren
KEY PLAYERS: Abby Erceg, Carson Pickett, Jess McDonald.
OUTLOOK: Racing made a pair of notable moves in the offseason: They signed Nigerian forward Uchenna Kanu from Tigres in Liga MX and acquired defenders Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg in a trade with North Carolina for Emily Fox. Kanu, 25, should give Louisville an offensive boost after scoring 23 goals in 38 appearances with Tigres. Pickett and Erceg shore up a defense that gave up 35 goals last season. Wang Shuang, who joined Louisville in August, has her footing in the league now and should provide additional firepower.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 8-9-5, eighth in the standings.
COACH: Freya Coombe.
KEY PLAYERS: Christen Press, Sydney Leroux, Sarah Gorden.
OUTLOOK: Press was Angel City’s big signing for the team’s debut last year but she was sidelined for much of the season after tearing the ACL in her right knee. She said on social media that she needed three surgeries over eight months. But it appears she’ll be back at some point this season after U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said she was in “return-to-play protocol.” Defender Sarah Gorden also tore the ACL in her right knee last year but appeared in a preseason match against Club America, playing for 65 minutes. Angel City has a player to watch this season in No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson, the first high schooler drafted in the league.
SAN DIEGO WAVE
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 10-6-6, lost to the Portland Thorns 2-1 in the semifinals.
COACH: Casey Stoney.
KEY PLAYERS: Alex Morgan, Naomi Girma, Kailen Sheridan.
OUTLOOK: The Wave were the surprise of last season but expectations were high from the start for the Casey Stoney-led club. Alex Morgan scored 16 goals and the Wave became the first true NWSL expansion team to make the playoffs. They advanced to the semifinals but lost to eventual champion Portland. The team also set the NWSL attendance record in September when 32,000 fans were on hand for a rivalry game against Angel City at Snapdragon Stadium. Expect more of the same this season from the Wave, who have a loaded lineup including Naomi Girma, Taylor Kornieck and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.
CHICAGO RED STARS
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 9-7-6, lost to the San Diego Wave in the opening round of the playoffs.
COACH: Chris Petrucelli.
KEY PLAYERS: Mallory Swanson, Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson.
OUTLOOK: Chicago has made the postseason for seven straight seasons but the team has never won a title. Mallory Swanson had 11 goals for the Red Stars last season before going on a tear for the U.S. national team to start 2023. While she provides the offense, national team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher holds down the defense. Defender Tierna Davidson missed last season with an ACL injury but coach Chris Petrucelli said she’s ready for the start of this season. Swanson’s husband, shortstop Dansby Swanson, will be nearby after signing a seven-year deal with the Chicago Cubs in the offseason.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 5-7-10, 10th in the standings.
COACH: Seb Hines.
KEY PLAYERS: Marta, Adriana, Ally Watt.
OUTLOOK: The Pride are in the midst of a rebuild. Seb Hines was interim coach last season before getting the job outright in November. Legendary forward Marta missed most of last season after tearing her ACL but she’s back. Marta is a six-time FIFA Best Player of the Year and is the top career scorer for the Brazilian national team, among both men and women. The Pride signed fellow Brazilian Adriana to complement Marta. Longtime defender Toni Pressley has retired, while goalkeeper Erin McLeod and midfielder Gunny Jonsdottir stepped away from the NWSL to play in Iceland.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 4-17-1, last place in the standings.
COACH: Juan Carlos Amoros.
KEY PLAYERS: Kristie Mewis, Margaret Purce, Kelley O’Hara
OUTLOOK: After a disappointing last-place showing in 2022, Gotham added a few key pieces in the offseason — including Lynn Williams, who spent last season with Kansas City recovering from a serious hamstring injury. Williams, Margaret “Midge” Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu will form a formidable front line. The team also added U.S. national team vet Kelley O’Hara and traded with Portland for Yazmeen Ryan. There’s really nowhere to go but up: Gotham allowed a league-high 46 goals last season while scoring a league-low 16 goals.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 3-9-10, 11th in the standings.
COACH: Mark Parsons.
KEY PLAYERS: Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Andi Sullivan.
OUTLOOK: The Spirit, like the league as a whole, is coming off a turbulent couple of seasons. But the team has hired Mark Parsons, who also coached the club from 2013-15 before stints with the Thorns and the Dutch national team. Michelle Kang is investing in the club after a contentious ownership battle, and the Spirit are still looking to rebrand. But there’s some serious talent on the roster, led by 20-year-old Trinity Rodman, the highest-paid player in the league, who had eight goals last season. The Spirit also brought in Chloe Ricketts, who at 15 is one of the youngest players in the league.
NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 9-8-5, seventh in the standings.
COACH: Sean Nahas.
KEY PLAYERS: Emily Fox, Casey Murphy, Brianna Pinto.
OUTLOOK: The Courage lost many notable players. Debinha went to Kansas City, defenders Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg were traded to Racing Louisville for Emily Fox. Diana Ordonez was sent to the Houston Dash. The team brought in Tyler Lussi to shore up the defense. The turnover could mean that goalkeeper Casey Murphy will be tested early. North Carolina narrowly missed the playoffs last season, marking the first missed postseason since the team moved from New York in 2017.
2022 RECORD AND FINISH: 10-6-6, lost to the Kansas City Current in the opening round.
COACH: Dan Laity.
KEY PLAYERS: Diana Ordonez, Ebony Salmon, Sophie Schmidt.
OUTLOOK: Diana Ordonez scored 11 goals for the North Carolina Courage last season, breaking the league record for goals scored by a rookie. She was traded to the Dash during the offseason and signed a three-year deal with the club. The Dash overall will have a new look under coach Dan Laity, who was a former assistant on Laura Harvey’s staff with the Reign. The Dash qualified for the playoffs for the first time last season after joining the league in 2014 and hope to continue the upward trend this season.