Portland Thorns, NC Courage, OL Reign, and Gotham FC are early favorites to win the league.
By Alex Holmes
The 2021 NWSL regular season begins this weekend, and with it comes a hint of normalcy as team rosters return to full strength and fans slowly return to their favorite soccer stadiums. The league will be back in action on Saturday, May 15, when Racing Louisville FC kicks off against Kansas City (5 P.M. ET, CBS Sports Network).
The four teams poised to fight at the top of the league standings throughout the summer are the reigning Challenge Cup champions Portland Thorns, perennial contenders North Carolina Courage, the rebuilt OL Reign, and the freshly rebranded New Jersey/New York Gotham FC. Each team has its own unique advantages that they will bring to the regular season.
Portland Thorns FC
The Thorns had a strong Fall Series in 2020, finishing atop the league standings. They carried that momentum into the 2021 Challenge Cup, where they went undefeated in the West Division before ousting Gotham FC by virtue of penalty kicks in the final.
Head coach Mark Parsons has experienced players at all the three lines on the field, from Christine Sinclair up top to USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn at center back. Sinclair’s partnership with both Sophia Smith and rising star Simone Charley was key to the Thorns’ Challenge Cup championship run. Lindsey Horan will continue to be one the league’s best midfielders and is joined at the center of the park by Crystal Dunn, who is arguably the most versatile player in the world.
Parsons and the Thorns will be in pursuit of another first place finish, and by the way the last two NWSL competitions have turned out, they will certainly be in the mix for another championship.
North Carolina Courage
The Courage have been in the hunt for the NWSL Shield and playoff championship ever since the franchise’s days back in New York. This year’s edition of head coach Paul Riley’s squad won’t have Crystal Dunn (Portland) or Jaelene Daniels (retired), but it still has plenty of championship experience heading into the regular season.
Debinha, who was recently named MVP of the 2021 Challenge Cup after scoring a league-leading three goals, and forwards Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams will continue to be scoring threats up top. On defense, Abby Erceg is the steady team leader at center back. Sitting between this group is a solid supporting cast of Denise O’Sullivan, Cari Roccaro, and Hailie Mace.
After a disappointing quarterfinal finish in the 2020 Challenge Cup followed by a fifth place finish in the Fall Series and a near miss of the championship round in the 2021 Challenge Cup, the Courage will be out for vengeance this summer.
The Reign are one of the teams finally back at full strength this season. Megan Rapinoe returned to the lineup after sitting out 2020, and head coach Farid Benstiti acquired some more firepower in the offseason.
The Reign will welcome German national team star Dzsenifer Marozsán and long-time French national team standouts Sarah Bouhaddi and Eugenie Le Sommer in June. All three are coming from the Reign’s sister club and European powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais.
Rapinoe has plenty of help from second-year player Tziarra King and veterans Sofia Huerta and Jessica Fishlock. The combination of Rapinoe, Marozsán, Le Sommer, Huerta, King, and Fishlock should make Reign fans excited about the 2021 regular season.
NY/NJ Gotham FC
Gotham might have turned some heads with their performance in the 2021 Challenge Cup. Before its rebranding, the team was known as Sky Blue FC and finished near the bottom of the standings in the 2019 season and 2020 Challenge Cup before finishing as runners-up in the 2021 Challenge Cup a few weeks ago.
A brilliant string of performances from goalkeeper DiDi Haracic and steady play across the lineup made Gotham a contender in the Challenge Cup, and they should carry that momentum into the regular season.
Carli Lloyd, Midge Purce, Jennifer Cudjoe, Nahomi Kawasumi, and Evelyne Viens are just a few names to watch out for on offense. Haracic had one of the steadiest backlines in the Challenge Cup anchored by Gina Lewandowski and Mandy Freeman.
It should be interesting to see how Gotham’s successful Challenge Cup translates into a longer regular season. They clearly have the pieces and the grit to become a championship team.
Although the pandemic curtailed operations across all the country’s sports last year, the NWSL had a busy 2020 summer and became the nation’s first sports league to restart safely. The league set the standard for playing in a pandemic with its inaugural Challenge Cup and ensuing Fall Series.
Flash forward a year later and the league has a second successful Challenge Cup under its belt, new high-profile sponsorships, two new franchises with a third on the way, and a growing pool of investors prepared to financially support several teams.
Earlier this week, the league announced its partnership deal with iHeartRadio that will feature the first ever audio live stream coverage of NWSL games. The league will have its own digital NWSL Radio Station that fans can tune into throughout the season. The deal comes a few weeks after the announcement of Ally and Nationwide as league sponsors.
The league also saw a new wave of investors partner with the Chicago Red Stars. The ownership group includes U.S. Men’s National Team gymnast Josh Dixon, Netflix Head of Global TV Bela Bajaria, and the Chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group Channing Dungey among several leaders in the entertainment and restaurant industries. The Washington Spirit also announced their ownership group earlier this year.
After a busy year of competition, partnerships, and more investment, the NWSL is ready to get back to normal.
The 2021 NWSL regular season begins Saturday, May 15 with three games on the schedule for opening day. Racing Louisville FC will take on Kansas City at 5 P.M. ET on CBSSN. Gotham FC and Houston will kick off at 7 P.M. ET on Paramount+. The opening slate will conclude with the NC Courage visiting the OL Reign , which will air live on Twitch at 10 P.M. ET. A full schedule of the 2021 NWSL season is available here.