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If the Challenge Cup was any indication, the 2021 NWSL season will be one to watch. As celebrity investment continues pouring into the league and superstar players fight for Olympic-inclusion, fireworks are expected from start to finish. In advance of this weekend’s kick off, here are four of the biggest stories we’ll have an eye on this year.

Olympic Roster Battle

USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has said on numerous occasions that he will be using NWSL games to evaluate players for the Olympic roster, imbuing the upcoming season with heightened significance.

League games will be crucial for players who currently sit on the bubble of the UWSNT roster. Kristie Mewis recently made a case for her place on the Olympic squad with a memorable Challenge Cup outing. Mal Pugh and Sophia Smith have put on impressive performances for their respective clubs as well. Will a Challenge Cup final appearance put Midge Purce in contention for a slot on the 18-player roster? Expect Olympic talk to dominate the first half of the 2021 season.

Are the Thorns too big to fail?

The Portland Thorns are overflowing with talent. The team’s back line is anchored by USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn and Thorn’s veteran Meghan Klingenberg. Opponents have the likes of Lindsay Horan and Crystal Dunn to contend with in the midfield. Then up top, Canadian legend Christine Sinclair is joined by 20-year-old phenom Sophia Smith. Not to mention Adrianna Franch, who towers in goal.

With the whole field stacked, it’s no wonder the Thorns steamrolled their way to the Challenge Cup final, banking three wins in a row and a draw in their final group stage match, before winning the championship in PKs against Gotham. The hurdle Portland now faces is building up enough momentum before the squad loses key players to the Olympics this summer.

Summer Absences

There will be no break in the 2021 NWSL season for the Tokyo Olympics. The games are set to span from July 23-Aug. 8, meaning Olympic-bound players will miss a substantial chunk of NWSL games. Teams will have to contend without players like Marta, Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair and Julie Ertz. The Olympic gap will impact clubs across the league, but could prove especially painful for squads like the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride, who have a large number of national team players.

Can a new group of international players revitalize OL Reign?

In early April, it was officially announced that French international goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and German international midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán were heading to the NWSL. The Olympic Lyonnais players are set to join OL Reign in June, on loan until the end of the year. It’s been speculated that French forward Eugénie Le Sommer will be joining her Lyon teammates in Tacoma this summer as well.

The move is a byproduct of Lyon’s OL group acquiring Reign FC back in 2020. The wave of international talent will be joining the likes of Tziarra King, who put on a dazzling performance for the Reign in the Challenge Cup. Will the injection of experienced international players be enough to push OL Reign atop the standings after a handful of middling years?