Gotham FC takes on the Chicago Red Stars in the first NWSL quarterfinal game on Sunday. (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

For the first time since the NWSL Championship on Nov. 20, NWSL games are back. The third annual Challenge Cup kicks off Friday with a pair of evening matches between Racing Louisville FC and Kansas City Current, followed by OL Reign and defending tournament champions Portland Thorns FC.

Adding two expansion clubs this offseason resulted in numerous trades, an expansion draft and more college players. Other than the Washington Spirit, the 2021 regular season champions, almost every team has a new look this year.

All eyes will be on new commissioner Jessica Berman when she takes office midway through the tournament on April 20. The former NHL executive has promised to build a strong relationship with the NWSL Players Association and earn the players’ trust after multiple coaches were fired last year amid accusations of abuse.

Most teams share the mindset that the Challenge Cup is an opportunity to evaluate the roster and smooth out tactics before the regular season begins. At the same time, they all want to win the championship on May 7. To get there, they need to finish as the top team in their division, or the top overall second-place team, to earn a ticket to the semifinals on May 4.

Divisions and predictions

This year, the clubs are split into three groups: West (OL Reign, Portland Thorns FC, Angel City FC and San Diego FC), Central (Houston Dash, Racing Louisville FC, Kansas City Current and Chicago Red Stars) and East (NJ/NY Gotham FC, Washington Spirit, North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride).

Based on the 2021 regular season standings (below) and our understanding of how teams have gelled through the preseason, we look at which squads are trending up, trending down or staying the same and offer up some predictions.

  1. Portland Thorns FC (13-6-5)
  2. OL Reign (13-8-3)
  3. Washington Spirit (11-7-6)
  4. Chicago Red Stars (11-8-5)
  5. NJ/NY Gotham FC (8-5-11)
  6. North Carolina Courage (9-9-6)
  7. Houston Dash (9-10-5)
  8. Orlando Pride (7-10-7)
  9. Racing Louisville FC (5-12-7)
  10. Kansas City Current (3-14-7)

West Division

Trending up: Reign

Led by 2021 Coach of the Year Laura Harvey, the Reign have always been a team of balance, with experience and skill at every position. The team will run through defenders Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta, who have recently had breakout performances with the U.S. women’s national team, midfielder and 2021 league MVP Jess Fishlock and forward Bethany Balcer, who can score goals with her head and both feet. A championship title has been a long time coming for this team. They’ll be hungry for it.

The same: Portland

The Thorns’ personnel hasn’t changed enough for them to fall too far from the top of the standings. Under new coach Rhian Wilkinson, they’re trying a new formation, and considering they concluded their three-game preseason tournament without surrendering a goal, it seems to be working.

Expansion teams: Angel City, San Diego

Angel City and San Diego will come in eager to prove themselves as expansion clubs. Taking advantage of offseason trades versus high college draft picks, Angel City has an experienced, balanced lineup that will give established NWSL teams like Portland and Reign tough competition. In what is sure to become a California rivalry, Angel City and the Wave will meet in their first-ever game game Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

West winner: Reign

Central Division

Trending up: Louisville, Kansas City

The Current’s new core of rookie defenders, who helped the team to 6-0 and 0-0 preseason shutouts of Washington and Orlando, respectively, are promising for the club’s future. Kansas City finished last season with 36 goals against, the second most in the league. They’ve since acquired a group of stars from the two-time NWSL champion North Carolina Courage — Sam Mewis, Kristen Hamilton, Hailie Mace and Lynn Williams, who’s second all-time in NWSL goals.

Racing Louisville will be an underrated team this tournament, but defender and 2021 No. 1 overall pick Emily Fox and star forward CeCe Kizer could lead them into contention sooner than expected. The club’s additions of World Cup champion Jess McDonald and 2022 No. 2 overall pick Jaelin Howell will only help.

Trending down: Chicago

The Central division will be the most balanced and, therefore, the most unpredictable. Last year, Houston, Louisville and Kansas City had less-than-ideal seasons, while Chicago made the league final. After losing Sarah Gorden to Angel City and Katie Johnson to San Diego, the Red Stars, under new coach Chris Petrucelli, will likely have adjustments to make during this Challenge Cup.

The same: Houston

After finishing 2021 in seventh place, the Dash lost star midfielder Kristie Mewis in the expansion draft, but acquired Mexican national player Maria Sánchez, who should make an immediate impact.

Division winner: Kansas City

East Division

Trending up: Gotham

As most teams trend up or down by at least a smidge every year, Gotham FC has catapulted right to the top. Offseason acquisitions Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, Kristie Mewis and Kumi Yokohama solidify a lineup that made it to a shootout with the Thorns in last year’s Challenge Cup final.

Trending down: Orlando, North Carolina

The Pride and Courage are in rebuilding mode after losing multiple stars during the offseason. The Courage traded away Sam Mewis, McDonald and Williams, and Amy Rodriguez retired. They picked up five rookies in the 2022 draft and signed them all at the beginning of preseason. Orlando lost U.S. national team players Krieger, Harris and Alex Morgan, as well as New Zealand international Ali Riley. Both teams will be figuring it out as they go.

The same: Washington

The 2021 league champions are clearly content with their title-winning roster, having not made any significant moves in the offseason. Tegan McGrady (traded to San Diego) and Paige Nielsen (traded to Angel City) filled important fullback roles for Washington last season, but they also shared that spot with Julia Roddar, who’s still around.

East winner: Gotham FC

Top overall second place: Angel City

The fourth semifinal spot should belong to the West, considering the level of competitiveness expected from that division. Angel City’s roster is talented enough to make the cut, even in the club’s first season on the field.

Challenge Cup champion: Gotham FC

Catapulting to the top means the very top.

How to watch

Most NWSL Challenge Cup matches will be streamed on Paramount+ in the U.S. and internationally on Twitch.

Games on CBS (also on Paramount+; all times ET)

  • April 2: San Diego Wave FC vs. Angel City FC at 4 p.m.
  • April 23: North Carolina Courage vs. Washington Spirit at 1 p.m.
  • May 7: Championship game at 1 p.m.

Games on CBS Sports Network

  • April 15: Kansas City Current vs. Houston Dash at 8 p.m.
  • April 17: OL Reign vs. Angel City FC at 6 p.m.
  • April 24: Houston Dash vs. Racing Louisville FC at 6 p.m.
  • May 4: Semifinals at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

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