It’s been a long, eventful offseason, but it’s finally time for NWSL games to begin. After weathering the COVID-19 pandemic and the unveiling of wider systemic issues in 2021 and 2022, the league is ready to start a new chapter and era of growth.
No one can predict the future, but a few overarching questions linger as the 2023 season gets set to kick off, with storylines reaching far beyond the league itself.
In what is possibly the biggest upgrade to NWSL game operations in the league’s history, the NWSL is following through on its commitment to implement Video Assisted Refereeing into every match in 2023. The move comes in response to league-wide calls for officiating quality to improve as the league pushes to keep pace with the rising standard of play.
Alongside VAR itself — which will check for card-worthy fouls, offside calls and handballs — the league has committed resources to making sure every broadcast has five camera angles for both internal and broadcast use. The lack of production variety has resulted in some old NWSL broadcasts looking washed out and flat, with 2023 hopefully setting a new standard for what fans can expect in their living rooms.
VAR hasn’t arrived without controversy at the international and domestic levels, even in the men’s game, but if the NWSL can find the right balance of letting referees do their job without missing the big calls, the league could enter the modern era in a real way.
For another year, the NWSL’s coaching positions have changed dramatically, as teams look for the right fit both on and off the field. Gotham, Washington, Portland, Houston and Orlando will all have head coaches make their debuts with their new clubs this season. While a certain amount of turnover is expected in the pros, a number of those clubs could benefit from security behind the scenes.
As the NWSL attempts to move forward from an era of toxicity and abuse that went uncovered for years, coaching dismissals have had as much to do with investigations into misconduct off the field as the product on the field. Poor results warrant action every year, but stability should stem from a respectful working environment that puts players in the best positions possible to succeed. The NWSL will make progress if all decisions can be made about the quality of play rather than the exploitation of power imbalances.
The NWSL is unique on the global stage in their summer schedule, which can be taxing on players but also gives the league a platform to promote the game before this year’s World Cup. Almost every player likely to be selected for the USWNT plays in the NWSL, as does a strong contingent of players from top soccer countries like Brazil, Japan and Canada. Reigning NWSL MVP Sophia Smith, Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan, Defender of the Year Naomi Girma and Goalkeeper of the Year Kailen Sheridan will all return and look to peak at exactly the right time before the World Cup starts in June.
This dynamic does create a double-edged sword for the league, which will lose star power to Australia and New Zealand in the middle of the regular season. To offset the roster attrition, the NWSL has made the Challenge Cup an in-season tournament. That will allow the league to avoid playing too many league games with its stars away, but availability after major international tournaments is never a guarantee. The NWSL enjoyed the biggest attendance bumps in league history after the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup win, and it will hope for similar returns in 2023.
In recent years, the expanded NWSL playoff format has favored the hot hand, with the upstart Washington Spirit taking the 2021 trophy and the Kansas City Current riding their underdog status all the way to the 2022 final. And while the NWSL Shield is a prestigious accomplishment, you only get a star over your jersey’s crest for winning the championship at the end of the grueling season.
The greatest victim to the NWSL’s postseason format has long been OL Reign, three-time Shield winners who haven’t made a championship game since 2015. The Reign are a long-standing pillar of the league who still have the core group of original signings Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock alongside original coach Laura Harvey. Their ability to put the whole package together at the end of the season will determine whether they can cement an already established legacy.
The league also went through its first-ever round of free agency this offseason, which showed that players want to be in positions to win. The Current are the prime example of an ambitious club that might take time to figure out how to work together as a team but has the star power to finish the season on top.
Competition in 2023 will be fierce, but in an ever-changing league, all teams will also have to have one eye on the future. The NWSL is expecting another round of two-team expansion in 2024, with the Utah Royals already announced and a new team in the Bay Area expected to arrive soon. While teams fighting for titles in 2023 are compiling elite talent and depth, expansion will affect those rosters after this season.
Some teams’ approaches to roster-building with expansion on the horizon can appear conservative, as in the current case of the Washington Spirit, but balancing player assets can keep a team competitive in the long run. Other teams that are leaning into short-term prospects and high-profile transfers will have a trickier time retaining talent in a league rife with parity rules and another round of free agency.
In some ways, a win-now approach and a process of steady roster control both make sense. The teams that might struggle the most are the ones that accomplish neither. As the season plays out, expect more moves to come.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.