Alex Morgan leads the San Diego Wave, one of two NWSL expansion teams, into the regular season. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

After six weeks of preseason and 36 Challenge Cup matches, the NWSL’s 2022 regular season has arrived.

In chaotic NWSL fashion, the season kicks off Friday night between Angel City FC and the North Carolina Courage while the Challenge Cup knockout stage is still ongoing. The game, aired on CBS Sports, is followed by an opening weekend in which every team will compete.

A longer Challenge Cup, two expansion teams and a new commissioner have certainly given the NWSL a new look this year. Jessica Berman will be in just her ninth day on the job as commissioner when the league opens play Friday. Almost every team has undergone change on the field, too, after an expansion draft and numerous offseason trades.

Let’s take a look at the league structure, storylines and rivalries to follow as the NWSL’s 10th season gets underway.

Format

The NWSL’s 12 teams will each compete in 22 matches during the regular season — 11 home and 11 away. Starting this year, the league has scheduled fewer games during the FIFA windows so that national team players can avoid scheduling conflicts between club and country. That change, however, did not account for a few major contests, such as the Women’s Euros this summer.

The regular season concludes Oct. 2, followed by a six-team playoff with the top two seeds receiving first-round byes. My top-six predictions for the 2022 playoffs closely reflect my preseason power rankings: OL Reign, North Carolina Courage, Kansas City Current, NJ/NY Gotham FC, defending Challenge Cup champions Portland Thorns and 2021 NWSL champions Washington Spirit.

The championship takes place on Oct. 29, with the playoff bonus pool once again financed by Ally’s Player Impact Fund.

What we learned from the Challenge Cup

The Spring of quick goals and yellow cards

The record for the three fastest goals in NWSL history was set twice over three days. The Reign netted each of theirs by the 11th minute in a 3-1 win over San Diego Wave FC on April 14, only to be bested by the Courage scoring three by the ninth minute on April 16 against the Orlando Pride. Four of the other five matches that week featured goals scored in six minutes or fewer.

When not scoring, players have also been setting records without the ball. Across five and a half weeks, NWSL referees have already handed out over a hundred yellow cards. To put that in perspective, there were 43 doled out in the 2021 Challenge Cup and 34 in 2020.

Kansas City ready for a breakout season

In just their second year since relocating from Utah and rebranding as the Current, Kansas City is in the Challenge Cup semifinals. They have the fourth-most amount of goals in the tournament, led by Kristen Hamilton’s four goals and Elyse Bennett’s four assists. And with four wins through six matches, they already have more victories than they had all of last year.

North Carolina back in the game

The Courage dropped down the standings into sixth place last season after their head coach, Paul Riley, was fired following bombshell allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse. Led this year by former assistant coach Sean Nahas, and feature new talent such as Brianna Pinto and Kerolin Nicoli, North Carolina has gone undefeated in the Challenge Cup. The Courage could be on their way to rediscovering the dominance they became known for during their run to three consecutive NWSL Shields from 2017-19.

OL, once again, on the brink of reigning

A consistently solid team that has never won a trophy, OL Reign has lost in the NWSL semifinals the past three seasons. In 2014 and 2015, they advanced to the championship game, losing by one goal in each contest. This year, their sneaky assists across the box in the attack and standout goaltending from Phallon Tullis-Joyce give them a strong case for championship contention. Finishing ahead of rival Portland in the standings for the just the second time since 2015, they’re off to a promising start.

Top rivalries

Angel City FC vs. San Diego Wave FC

When two expansion teams based in southern California debut the same year, of course there’s going to be a rivalry. The Wave had the slight edge over Angel City coming out of the Challenge Cup, going 1-3-2 compared to Angel City’s 1-4-1. Head to head, they tied in their first matchup, and San Diego won 4-2 in the second.

OL Reign vs. Portland Thorns

The original West Coast rivalry has been highly anticipated this year after strong showings from both sides in 2021. Though Portland won the NWSL Shield, the Reign got the better of the Thorns in two of their three matchups, the last one being a draw. The Reign were also the stronger side in the 2022 Challenge Cup, defeating Portland 1-0 after a 1-1 draw in their opener.

Kansas City Current vs. Racing Louisville FC

The two new clubs last season, Kansas City and Louisville are coming out stronger this year. The Current look like the stronger team coming out of the Challenge Cup, but when they play each other, it’s anyone’s game. They drew 1-1 in their first matchup of the Challenge Cup before Louisville rolled over Kansas City 3-0 in the Current’s only loss of the tournament.

North Carolina Courage vs. Washington Spirit

If the East Division proved anything in the 2022 Challenge Cup, it’s that a Courage-Spirit matchup is as entertaining as they come. Each of their meetings resulted in 2-2 draws, a contrast from the three wins and a draw that Washington grabbed from North Carolina last season. The Courage, though, are a different team this year, and neither club has lost an NWSL match yet in 2022.

How to watch

CBS will air two regular season matches and the championship game. Those games are also viewable on Paramount+. CBS Sports will broadcast 11 regular season games, one quarterfinal and both semifinals. The other 96 regular season matches can be streamed exclusively on Paramount+, and all games can be accessed internationally on Twitch.

CBS (all times ET)

June 19 – NJ/NY Gotham FC vs. San Diego Wave FC at 4 p.m.
Sept. 10 – Washington Spirit vs. San Diego Wave FC at 1 p.m.
Oct. 29 – NWSL Championship

CBS Sports (all times ET)

April 29 – Angel City vs. North Carolina Courage at 10:30 p.m.
May 13 – Portland Thorns FC vs. OL Reign at 10:30 p.m.
May 27 – Orlando Pride vs. Washington Spirit at 7 p.m.
June 8 – San Diego Wave FC vs. Portland Thorns FC at 10 p.m.
July 2 – Orlando Pride vs. Racing Louisville FC at 7 p.m.
Aug. 5 – Portland Thorns FC vs. North Carolina Courage at 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 14 – Angel City FC vs. Chicago Red Stars at 8 p.m.
Aug. 17 – Houston Dash vs. NJ/NY Gotham FC at 8:30 p.m.
Aug. 19 – Kansas City Current vs. Angel City FC at 8 p.m.
Sept. 11 – NJ/NY Gotham FC vs. Kansas City Current at 6 p.m.
Sept. 21 – Angel City FC vs. Washington Spirit at 10:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 – Quarterfinal
Oct. 23 — Semifinal 1 and 2

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.