(Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The NWSL opens the weekend with a Friday night match between the Orlando Pride and Washington Spirit, but the most anticipated contests come Sunday.

Three storylines to watch

North Carolina Courage still searching for first win

After a loss to San Diego last weekend, the Courage are 0-0-3 to start the season after winning the Challenge Cup. In that time frame, they’ve scored just two goals, while their opponents have scored five.

This is a Courage team that can score goals – that much was proven during the Challenge Cup. But health and safety protocols combined with a level of fatigue from winning the preseason tournament has hindered their play thus far. As a result, they sit at the bottom of the standings with no points.

At some point, though, something has to give. Could North Carolina break through Sunday against the Houston Dash?

While Kerolin remains out with a sprained ankle suffered during the Challenge Cup final, other scorers like Debinha and Diana Ordoñez have the ability to step up and give the team a boost.

Houston, meanwhile, sits fourth in the NWSL standings with a record of 2-1-1 and seven points. The Dash are coming off of a 2-0 win over the Portland Thorns and could prove another tall test for the Courage.

Will San Diego continue to ride the wave?

Let’s be honest: Nobody expected San Diego and Angel City to top the table five weeks into the regular season. Except, maybe, for Jessa Braun.

San Diego has stood atop the standings for four weeks in a row and leads the league in goals with eight (Alex Morgan leads the individual race with six). The Wave are just the sixth NWSL team to win four of their first five games of the season and the previous five all advanced to the NWSL Championship. Foreshadowing?

While the season is long and a lot can happen between now and then, the strategy that Casey Stoney & Co. implemented ahead of the season appears to be paying off.

The Wave will face off against OL Reign this week, a team that just won its first game Wednesday. But despite the Reign’s early-season struggles, they’re not a team to count out. These two teams have already faced off twice, both in the group stage of the Challenge Cup. OL Reign won the first match 3-1 while the two split the second 1-1.

Expansion team: Minnesota?

As the talk around NWSL expansion continues to grow, so does the list of cities that could become hosts as soon as 2024.

While Salt Lake City is a possible destination, Grant Wahl also has reported that Atlanta, Austin, Cincinnati, Toronto, Columbus and San Francisco are interested.

There’s also an answer that could be right in front of the NWSL’s eyes: Minnesota.

Minnesota Aurora FC began play in the USL W League last night in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,219 fans at TCO Stadium. Before they even began play, the team had generated $650,000 in combined ticket, merchandise and sponsorship revenue and had to upgrade its budget. A publicly-owned team, the Aurora raised $1 million in funding ahead of their formation as a club.

There’s also local support, if the fact that the team sold out its season tickets – all 3,000 of them – means anything.

“It was incredible,” head coach Nicole Lukic said of the support. “During warmups, you could just slowly kind of see everybody start trickling in. It was just becoming more and more packed, and then to hear the supporters’ groups and the chants and the drums, it was such a professional atmosphere, and I know our players just absolutely loved it.”

While there are a lot of logistics involved in bringing a semi-professional club up to the pro level, there is a blueprint for an NWSL club fielding a USL team: Racing Louisville, which is fielding its own USL club starting this season and is the first NWSL franchise to do so.

Week 5 Schedule

  • Orlando Pride vs. Washington Spirit, Friday @ 7 p.m. ET
  • Chicago Red Stars vs. Portland Thorns, Saturday @ 8 p.m. ET
  • OL Reign vs. San Diego Wave, Sunday @ 3 p.m. ET
  • Houston Dash vs. North Carolina Courage, Sunday @ 7 p.m. ET
  • Angel City FC vs. NJ/NY Gotham FC, Sunday @ 8 p.m. ET
  • Kansas City Current vs. Racing Louisville FC, Monday @ 3 p.m. ET