NWSL opens ninth season with new team, backers; NC Courage look to win title

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Portland Thorns teammates swarm Morgan Weaver (22) after she made the game-winning penalty kick during the NWSL Challenge Cup soccer final against NJ/NY Gotham FC at Providence Park, Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Portland, Ore. (Serena Morones/The Oregonian via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — For the Portland Thorns, lifting the Challenge Cup was just the beginning.

The Thorns won the National Women’s Soccer League’s preseason tournament in dramatic fashion — on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Gotham — and now turn their attention to the league’s ninth season, which opens Saturday. Portland is considered the league favorite.

“We know that when we’re us, and we play to our strengths and we do what we can do, then it’s going to be really hard for other teams to beat us — because that’s how much we believe in our style, our culture, and the way that we can press and build and score,” Portland defender Meghan Klingenberg said.

Beyond the field, change has been everywhere in the NWSL, which has lasted longer than any previous attempt at a top level women’s pro league in the country.

The addition of Racing Louisville puts the league at 10 teams for the season. There’s more to come as Angel City joins next season with its star-studded ownership group, including tennis star Venus Williams and Oscar winner Natalie Portman.

Several of the league’s teams have also added high-profile investors in the offseason. Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager bought into the Washington Spirit. Naomi Osaka became an investor in the North Carolina Courage, while journalist Sarah Spain and music executive Colleen Mares joined Chicago’s ownership group.

Investors aren’t the only sign the NWSL remains on the right track.

The NWSL saw unprecedented growth in viewership last year — up by some 300% — when it became the first professional team sports league in the United States to return amid the pandemic by staging a tournament in Utah.

Last week’s Challenge Cup final was on CBS, and the network will also air three regular-season games and the league championship. Other games will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network, Paramount+ or streamed live on Twitch.

The Thorns, who went undefeated in the preseason tournament, open the regular season Sunday against the Chicago Red Stars. Portland’s roster includes U.S. national team players Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, as well as Canadian Christine Sinclair.

“For us, we don’t just want to win. We want to also be the best. We want to be the best that ever was,” Klingenberg said. “We want to be the type of team that — North Carolina was so good that I think people started changing the way that they play and changing the way that they draft to try and beat North Carolina the last couple of years. That’s amazing. That’s literally changing the culture of the league with how good you are. And that’s what we’re chasing, because there’s no limits once you have that kind of goal and outlook.”

The North Carolina Courage won the last regular NWSL championship in 2019.

REBRAND

Sky Blue has rebranded as Gotham FC. The New Jersey-based club wanted to recognize its growing reach across the region — so it created a new crest with a nod to the Statue of Liberty.

OFFSEASON MOVE

Kansas City has an NWSL team again.

The Utah Royals folded in the offseason after Dell Loy Hansen stepped down as the owner of the NWSL club and of Real Salt Lake of the MLS amid controversy over comments he made about the MLS side joining protests over the shooting of James Blake. Angie and Chris Long led an investor group — including Brittany Matthews, fiancee of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — that stepped up and moved the Royals to Kansas City.

It was something of a full circle, since the Royals were the team that emerged when FC Kansas City folded after the 2017 season.

EXPANSION

Louisville joins the league this season under coach Christy Holly. Although the team went 0-2-2 during the Challenge Cup, Holly said Racing gained valuable experience.

“We are in the embryonic stages of our growth in the NWSL. There are no easy games in the NWSL. If you take your foot off the gas for a second, these teams will punish you. That happened to us a couple of times. I think there were definitely a few games where we should have put the game to bed and we didn’t.”

Louisville will host Kansas City on Saturday.

Holly has put together an intriguing roster, led by experienced goalkeeper Michelle Betos and starring forwards Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato, as well as the league’s top draft pick, defender Emily Fox. The team was still busy adding to its roster this week, signing forward Ebony Salman.

NEW FACES

The Reign’s affiliation with Lyon has brought an infusion of international talent to the squad. At the conclusion of Lyon’s season, forward Eugenie Le Sommer, goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan will join the Reign on loan.

Then there’s exciting rookie Trinity Rodman, who plays for the Washington Spirit and is quickly establishing her own identity apart from her famous father.

NEW SPONSORS

The NWSL announced Friday that it has secured a multiyear sponsorship deal with Mastercard. Earlier this year, Nationwide and Ally became NWSL partners.

The influx of sponsors and investors points to the league’s strength.

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