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History, calamity and expansion: Biggest NWSL stories of 2022

Sophia Smith won NWSL MVP and a championship with the Portland Thorns in 2022. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL underwent massive change in 2022. The league ratified its first-ever collective bargaining agreement, reeled from the findings of two massive investigations into wrongdoing and put on one of the largest championship weekends in NWSL history.

To call it an eventful year would be an understatement. Let’s take a look at a few of the moments we’ll never forget.

The year of the union

The year began with the NWSL in a precarious position. Collective bargaining agreement negotiations had slowed, and multiple investigations into misconduct were ongoing after bombshell reporting revealed cases of abuse throughout the league. With every day that passed, the possibility of a player strike became more likely as the league neared the preseason CBA deadline of Feb. 1.

What happened next shaped not only the NWSL for the next five years, but also women’s soccer forever. The league’s first CBA guaranteed new player rights, including free agency, maternity leave and a doubled league minimum salary. Preseason began on time, and years of work by the NWSL Players Association culminated in a new foundation upon which the league could build.

The NWSLPA’s work, though, didn’t end after the ratification of the CBA. Questions like whether players with team-first contract options can be considered free agents and whether new avenues should be created for teenage players to enter the league were debated and partially resolved. The PA has emphasized that CBAs are valuable only if they are being enforced, and constant vigilance in the face of the Sally Q. Yates report provided a sense of stability.

At the end of the year, the NWSL and NWSLPA finally released their joint investigation into wrongdoing and misconduct, in what is hopefully the final page of a volatile chapter in the league’s history. Even if more challenges lie ahead, the strength of the union gives players a reliable advocate.

The calamity of the Challenge Cup

The year marked the beginning of the end of the Challenge Cup as a preseason tournament. Originally placed between preseason and the regular season as a pandemic safeguard, the scheduling of the Challenge Cup in 2022 arguably altered a number of clubs’ entire seasons.

The North Carolina Courage defeated the Washington Spirit in the third Challenge Cup final on May 7, in a game on CBS that overlapped with the beginning of the regular season. Both teams had to reschedule their regular-season games that had been slated for the same weekend after picking up an additional knockout game the Wednesday prior. The match itself was ugly, and neither team rode their success into a playoff appearance. The Spirit struggled through a dire early schedule to finish the season in 11th, a far cry from winning their first NWSL Championship in 2021. The Courage fared slightly better, making a late surge but falling just short of a playoff spot in the final week of the season.

With a new name sponsor and prize money attached, the Challenge Cup has a place in the NWSL’s calendar, but it became very clear that something had to change in the name of player safety. In 2023, the Cup will become a mid-season tournament, played throughout the year during other breaks in the regular season.

The Challenge Cup clearly needed to evolve, or the NWSL needed to move on from the format entirely. With a new system in 2023, the tournament has a chance to reach its full potential.

Angel City FC led the NWSL in attendance in their inaugural season. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

California dreamin’

The year 2022 will likely always be remembered as the one the NWSL went all-in on the beaches of California. Angel City’s regular-season opener at the Banc of California Stadium marked a season of record attendances, and San Diego’s mid-season debut at Snapdragon Stadium showed what was possible for an expansion club in its first year.

San Diego, in particular, crushed expansion expectations on the field. Alex Morgan won the Golden Boot, Naomi Girma won both Rookie and Defender of the Year, Kailen Sheridan won Goalkeeper of the Year, and Casey Stone won Coach of the Year. The Wave became the first expansion club to qualify for the NWSL playoffs in their first year, and for much of the season, they were in legitimate contention for the Shield at the top of the table.

NWSL expansion was once seen as a risky proposition, with teams struggling to find local attendance footholds while slowly developing on the pitch. Angel City showed that women’s soccer can be big business, and San Diego backed it all up on the field. The next teams to join the league in 2024 have large shoes to fill.

Portland Thorns’ triumph, uneasy future

On the field, the Portland Thorns were one of the best clubs in the NWSL in 2022. They finished second in the league table, won their semifinal and looked like they were in cruise control on their way to the franchise’s third NWSL Championship over Kansas City. League MVP Sophia Smith ended the best year of her young professional career with a championship goal (and shrug celebration) that entered the annals of NWSL legend. For one moment, it seemed like the Thorns might be able to put their off-field troubles behind them.

But the offseason brought more radical change. Owner Merritt Paulson finally announced his intention to sell the club after being named in the Yates report for allowing former coach Paul Riley’s misconduct to be covered up for years. Paulson intends to divest the Thorns from the Portland Timbers, changing both the club’s relationship to their home in Providence Park and the infrastructure of the front office.

Paulson’s decision to sell felt somewhat inevitable with the NWSLPA report looming, but Portland’s upheaval had only begun. The same week as Paulson’s announcement, head coach Rhian Wilkinson abruptly resigned from her position after developing feelings for a player that went beyond friendship.

Suddenly, Portland’s championship win became a story not of mere triumph over adversity, but the last image of the club as it existed for the first 10 years of the league’s existence. Now, the Thorns enter 2023 without a manager and with more questions than ever despite their clear talent advantages.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.