One year ago, OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer put the NWSL on blast over Challenge Cup scheduling issues. One year later, she’s back at it.

The Seattle-based club once again has clinched the top seed heading into the tournament semifinals. But if OL Reign advance to the final, they would not be able to host, as the championship match is locked into a 12:30 p.m. ET start time on CBS — so 9:30 a.m. local time in Seattle.

Rather than force players into an early wake-up call, the NWSL instead would ask OL Reign to be the visiting team for the final, Balcer wrote Wednesday in her Instagram Story. OL Reign will host Racing Louisville at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, then the winner will advance to face either the Kansas City Current or the North Carolina Courage in the championship.

“Screw CBS and put that game on YouTube for all I care,” Balcer wrote. “No wonder we struggle to get the exposure and views we want…because what the league is giving us is SHIT.”

As the outspoken 26-year-old star pointed out, such scheduling has been a recurring issue for the league. In the 2021 Challenge Cup, the Portland Thorns hosted the final at 10 a.m. local time. Then in the 2021 NWSL playoffs, the championship was scheduled for a 9 a.m. PT kickoff at Portland’s Providence Park, but the league moved the match to Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville after players voiced their discontent.

In the 2022 Challenge Cup, No. 1 seed OL Reign had to travel to the No. 4 seed Washington Spirit’s home stadium for the semifinal round due to scheduling conflicts at their own home field. And even if they had advanced to the final, the start time would have left them unable to host.

“It BLOWS my mind that we have had the Challenge Cup for three years and we still are making the same mistakes,” Balcer wrote Wednesday.

Perhaps due to these issues, the NWSL reportedly will not stage the Challenge Cup as a tournament in 2024.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results… well our league is looking pretty insane to me,” Balcer wrote. “Put the game on at 7 p.m. local time for whoever is the top seed. If that is too difficult, you aren’t in the right job and you don’t care about growing the women’s game.”


Angel City FC’s first season in the NWSL was a rousing success by almost every metric off the pitch. The team hosted sold-out crowds, sold sponsorships, connected with the community and more.

On the field, the results were slightly less conclusive, as a number of key players suffered injuries and the team’s plans hit bumps in the road. An expansion team taking some time to find its footing in its inaugural season is understandable, but the Los Angeles club will need to take steps forward on the pitch in 2023 to keep pace with the rest of the league.

2022 Review: Baby steps

Angel City made a handful of splashy moves prior to their inaugural season. The team swapped their first-round draft pick for USWNT superstar Christen Press and benefitted from smart deals and player wishes to compile what looked like a competitive starting XI.

The team’s best-laid plans never quite came to fruition, in part due to an influx of injuries. Angel City lost center-back Sarah Gorden for the year with an ACL tear as well as star striker Christen Press to an ACL tear in June. After trading for Orlando’s Sydney Leroux later in June, the forward’s availability was limited the rest of the season. Winger Simone Charley dealt with lingering Achilles issues in the latter half of the summer, and midfielder Julie Ertz took time away from the sport entirely after the club acquired her rights before the season.

Angel City’s availability issues made it difficult to gauge their roster construction. The team became a gritty unit of starters who withstood the ebbs and flows of possession to try to grind out results. Angel City’s depth was put under a microscope by necessity, and the toll at the end of the season showed as the expansion side faded to eighth after a season-ending loss to the Chicago Red Stars.

Christen Press has been slowly working her way back from an ACL injury suffered last season. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

Offseason moves: Betting on the future

After an inaugural season involving many factors outside the club’s control, Angel City took the two-pronged approach of running it back and planning for the future. The club traded for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NWSL draft, selecting local teenage talent Alyssa Thompson. Thompson will get significant minutes in her first year as a pro as Press and Leroux continue to work their way back from injuries.

The assets L.A. dealt to acquire Thompson, in addition to the assets used to pick up Press and others in 2022, left the club with little room for more moves. As a result, Angel City needs to rely on their current team taking steps forward in 2023. Canada international Vanessa Gilles remains on loan to Olympique Lyon, but Gorden has made a full recovery and appears ready to run the backline in 2023.

“We didn’t necessarily get where we were looking to in the first season but were able to establish a foundation and a training facility,” general manager Angela Hucles Mangano said at the beginning of preseason. “We are looking at how we’re rounding out our entire roster, for the immediate and long term. We really want to make sure that we can provide depth in different positions. That is where you see how those players can be additive.”

While Angel City eagerly awaits the returns of Press and Leroux, the club made no moves to shore up the frontline that will likely be commanded by Thompson and Charley. Former North Carolina outside back Merritt Mathias should walk into a defensive role if she’s available, and former San Diego Wave forward Katie Johnson can also connect the attack to the midfield with her connective passing.

Savannah McCaskill led Angel City with seven goals in 2022. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

2023 outlook: Patience for the payoff

It’s difficult to gauge how head coach Freya Coombe plans to manage Thompson’s high ceiling while also getting the most out of the rest of her squad. A preseason friendly against Club América showed both the strengths and the weaknesses in Angel City’s roster construction.

While Thompson showed off her electric speed and poise to score her debut goal, the team started defender Madison Hammond at defensive midfielder and center back Paige Nielsen at outside back. Angel City never quite addressed the positional needs in the offseason that would allow the club to control the pace of play without requiring as much off-the-ball defending to pick up points. Jun Endo and Savannah McCaskill’s playmaking will be the key toward unlocking opposing defenses, and reliability at the less flashy positions might be what Angel City needs more than a brand-new star.

Angel City could be one of the biggest boom-or-bust propositions in the NWSL. They have the on-the-ball quality and speed of play to put opponents on their heels, but they might find that living dangerously gets in their way during a punishing regular season.

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

Since joining the NWSL in 2017, the Orlando Pride have had a tenuous foothold on the NWSL standings. Despite initially fielding a splashy lineup featuring players like Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Marta, Orlando could never quite get the results to match the potential of its assembled roster.

A high coaching turnover rate affected consistency, and the team slid toward the bottom of the table, finishing last in 2019. In the years since, Orlando has had stretches of positive results but has still struggled to compete by the end of a punishing NWSL season.

Recently, Orlando’s philosophy toward roster-building has shown a marked change from the top-heavy investment of the team’s early years. Under new head coach Seb Hines, the Pride have compiled a young core of developing players through the draft and free agency, allowing the club to put roots down before beginning to grow into a playoff contender. The question in 2023 is whether the team can contend this year, or if they’re stuck building for the next version of the future.

2022 review: Getting stuck in

Despite renewed expectations, Orlando’s 2022 season started with middling results, as the occasional attacking fireworks couldn’t quite make up for their struggles on defense. The Pride would gut out a win one weekend, and then give up four or five goals to their next opponent.

The inconsistencies weren’t relegated to on-field performances. Head coach Amanda Cromwell was suspended in June (and later expelled from the league) amid an investigation for possible retaliation, and Hines was given interim control of the team midway through the 2022 season.

Despite adversity, the Pride also proved themselves resilient in the second half of the season. Orlando pulled together a five-game unbeaten streak in June after Cromwell’s suspension, becoming a stuck-in group that was very difficult for opponents to break down. While the Pride didn’t always play the prettiest soccer, they did stop the bleeding that plagued them at the beginning of the season.

But working primarily without the ball has its costs, and at the end of the season, fatigue set in and the club struggled to implement tactics that went further than stopping the opposition. A few multi-goal losses to opponents at the top of the table, like OL Reign and Portland, firmly ended Orlando’s dream of a playoff surge and relegated the club to a 10th-place finish in the 2022 standings.

Last year, Orlando became more of a proof of concept than a fully realized soccer team, defined more by how they could frustrate other teams than the strengths they brought to a match themselves.

Second-round pick Messiah Bright could end up being the steal of the 2023 NWSL Draft. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Building a new future

After a season of ups and downs, Hines began to further compile the young group the Pride believe can carry the team for years to come. Orlando was reportedly in the running for top free agent Debinha, but even after losing out to the Kansas City Current, the Pride front office continued to look for ways to solidify their core.

Orlando targeted talent in the draft, bringing in Emily Madril (No. 3) to partner with Megan Montefusco in the central defense and picking up underrated playmaking talent in the later rounds. Midfielder Summer Yates (No. 39) can create havoc in an NWSL midfield, and forward Messiah Bright (No. 21) could be the steal of the draft after Orlando grabbed her late in the second round. In free agency, the Pride signed Brazil forward Adriana to add extra firepower to the attack.

The Pride will also benefit from the return of legendary Brazilian playmaker Marta, who missed almost all of the 2022 season with an ACL tear. Marta brings both quality to the attack and veteran experience that will help Orlando’s young group learn the standards of the professional league. She will help make up for the loss of forward Darian Jenkins, who announced her retirement in January.

Seb Hines begins his first season as Orlando's permanent head coach. (Courtesy of the Orlando Pride)

2023 outlook: Don’t overthink it

Perhaps for the first time, Orlando appears to be building a real foundation for the future, but their success this year will depend on how the coaching staff adapts to the team’s skill set. The midfield is still unbalanced, with more attacking midfielders than players who excel at off-the-ball defensive positioning. Mikayla Cluff is ready for greater midfield responsibilities, but she’s a forward-pushing midfielder, as is rookie Yates. The Pride can’t spend too much time trying to possess through the middle of the pitch if they want to find immediate success.

The good news for Orlando is that they don’t necessarily have to aspire to possession-based soccer when it makes more sense to play direct. With a number of quality options along the frontline, the Pride can play through their forwards while providing a level of defensive coverage they might not have had before.

Orlando’s ceiling will depend on the team’s ability to move the ball quickly and to absorb pressure. Madril and Montefusco will have to build chemistry quickly, with the hope that players like Ally Watt and Julia Doyle will be able to pounce on quick-trigger opportunities on the other end.

Ultimately, the Pride could be written off as a work in progress for the future. But many great clubs in the NWSL’s history have found ways to turn positive play into results by not overcomplicating the task at hand, and a little confidence for a team in transition could go a very long way.

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

OL Reign’s 2022 season could be described as a rollercoaster full of highs and lows. The team won their third NWSL Shield and earned a No. 1 seed in the NWSL playoffs, reflecting the consistent excellence the club has come to be known for since the early days of the league.

But once again, they failed to win the biggest honor of all, falling in their second consecutive semifinal after finishing in the top two in the league standings, this time to the Kansas City Current. The Reign have always represented the dichotomy of the difficult task in front of NWSL clubs: Sometimes the consistency that gives you a season-long edge becomes exploitable in the win-or-go-home playoffs.

The Reign have yet to hoist the NWSL trophy at the end of the postseason despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league. Is this the year the original Reign trio of Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock finish a season on a win?

2022 review: All about the timing

Part of what made the Reign’s inability to reach the finish line in 2022 so confounding is they appeared to be peaking at exactly the right time. The team’s Shield win was less a reflection of complete season dominance, and more an opportunity seized at the last minute.

Portland was in pole position for a back-to-back Shield title before dropping crucial points in the final weekend of the regular season. OL Reign, with momentum behind them, grabbed the chance to finish at the top of the table and looked like they had more in the tank for a postseason run.

But then, the same issues that have plagued the Reign for years popped up in their semifinal matchup against the Current. The Reign are experts at moving the ball, controlling games through possession and finding clinical ways to create chances on goal. They arguably are the golden standard for possessive-style football in the NWSL, with a consistency underlined by talent and experience.

Despite the strong build-up play, the Reign had a hard time finishing those chances. The club hit the woodwork more than any other NWSL team in 2022, and while the addition of Canada forward Jordyn Huitema midseason helped, they came up short again in the knockout game. The Reign out-shot, out-passed, out-possessed and held a huge advantage on set pieces in their semifinal, and still saw their season disappear in a disappointing 2-0 loss to Kansas City.

“It’s so tough because you look back on the year, and we had a really good year,” midfielder Rose Lavelle told reporters in preseason. “We won the Shield and that’s hard. That’s like a product of the whole season. But then I think to finish on that last game hurt us all.”

The Reign acquired forward Elyse Bennett and defender Emily Sonnett in the offseason. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Staying the course

Despite the disappointing finish, the Reign’s approach to the 2023 offseason was about consistency. Top free agents Rapinoe and Barnes both decided to re-sign with the club — ”It would have taken a catastrophe, most likely, for me to actually leave,” Rapinoe said — and head coach Laura Harvey made strategic additions elsewhere.

“Having the group predominantly back together again was a priority,” Harvey said. As a result, the Reign head into the 2023 season looking very similar to their Shield-winning squad.

The Reign did take the opportunity to sign USWNT defender Emily Sonnett on draft day, after the Washington Spirit offered her in a trade. They also picked up second-year forward Elyse Bennett from Kansas City, bolstering a frontline that will need dynamicism when players are away for the 2023 World Cup.

“Adding someone of [Sonnett’s] quality and experience and knowing how to win in this league could be really vital for us, and adding some depth in our frontline was also a priority to us and obviously [Bennett] fits that mold,” said Harvey. The coach noted that the team didn’t bring in rookies in large numbers, instead focusing on players with track records and the ability to acclimate to the Reign’s style of play.

Harvey also has the ebbs and flows of the international calendar in mind: “We’re constantly looking at, is this the roster that we have for the whole year? Is this something that we can take through to the World Cup, and then we have to manipulate the roster a little bit during the World Cup? And then, what does it look like after the World Cup?

“I sort of think, in World Cup years, you’ve always got those things going around in your mind. But it all started with making sure that we kept the majority of the group together from last year.”

Coach Laura Harvey is a three-time NWSL Coach of the Year with the Reign. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

2023 Outlook: Finishing the job

The goal in 2023 remains the same as in past years: The Reign expect to compete for an NWSL championship.

“We have just such a talented, young squad. We kind of have all the pieces in place to be really good for a very long time and I think with the foundation of our culture and just how we are here, it could be one of the most attractive places in the world, not just the NWSL,” Rapinoe said.

“But we need to keep building and keep pushing and keep striving and making sure that everything off the pitch is just as good as what’s on the pitch.”

The Reign played preseason games in California, heading to warmer weather as many other clubs did before the season, and will be training at Starfire Sports in 2023 and beyond. While the group has always had a strong locker-room culture, upgrades in resources have proven to be key during a grueling NWSL season, and the Reign are taking steps to keep up with the top clubs in the league.

On the field, the squad is leaning into what’s worked for them in the past, with the intention of making the final push when it matters most.

“The vibes are always so good, and I think I’ve never been on a team like this that it’s just so good and wholesome,” Lavelle said. “It’s such a great group, and I think it makes it so easy to come in and get the job done. I think we’re all on the same page with everything and it’s fun.”

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

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.

Bring on VAR

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.

Slowing down the coaching carousel

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 will be without Alex Morgan and other national team players during the World Cup this summer. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

Getting ready for the big stage

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.

Who will be poised to finish the job?

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.

Calm before the expansion storm

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.

Every NWSL offseason comes with player movement, but the months leading up to the 2023 season reflected a new era of player choice. The league’s first free-agency period saw many top players leaving for new environments and teams making a few surprising moves themselves.

Almost every NWSL roster will look different in 2023, with the potential for dramatic returns as teams meet for the first time in the regular season.

Don’t look now, but revenge season might be upon us. Here are the games to circle on your calendar.

March 25: Kansas City Current at North Carolina Courage

The first game of the NWSL regular season wastes no time in getting into one of the most dramatic narratives of the offseason. The Kansas City Current were the big winners of the league’s free-agency period and feature heavily on this list as players take on their former teams.

First up, two-time NWSL champion Debinha returns to the home of the North Carolina Courage in her first game after a high-profile move to Kansas City. Courage head coach Sean Nahas said at the 2023 draft that they had made serious overtures to the Brazilian superstar to try to convince her to stay with her club of five years, and her playmaking ability will surely be missed in North Carolina.

The Current come into the season with high expectations. Debinha appeared to pick up a knock in preseason that might limit her availability for this game. Regardless, the opening match against her former teammates (and current Brazil teammate Kerolin) will be a battle that sets the tone for Kansas City’s ceiling in 2023.

Emily Sonnett was a part of Washington's 2021 NWSL championship run. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

March 26: OL Reign at Washington Spirit

OL Reign travels to Washington D.C. on opening weekend, with a few chips on their shoulder to shake off. The Spirit famously ended the Reign’s postseason dreams in 2021 before going on to win the club’s first NWSL Championship. Prior to that, Rose Lavelle found her NWSL rights abruptly sent to Seattle from Washington while playing for Manchester City, a move she said surprised her at the time.

More recently, Washington unexpectedly sent another USWNT mainstay to the Pacific Northwest, completing a draft-day trade that dealt Emily Sonnett to OL Reign. The trade came about quickly, with new Spirit head coach Mark Parsons making a move to address what he referred to as a “structural” imbalance to his roster. This is the second time Parsons has traded Sonnett to a new team, first sending her to the Orlando Pride when he was the head coach of the Portland Thorns.

The Reign had a consistent partnership between Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt in the central defense in 2022, so it will be interesting to see how Sonnett is deployed. No matter, the potential revenge factor in this one is sky high.

April 15: Kansas City Current at Chicago Red Stars

There’s nothing like facing your former captain at home. Vanessa DiBernardo was a Chicago Red Star for eight years, and most recently their captain, before leaving for the Current in her first year of free agency. She was joined by former Chicago teammate Morgan Gautrat, who had played for the Red Stars for five years.

Both midfielders played in multiple NWSL finals with Chicago but decided to sign with a stacked Kansas City roster still in search of their first piece of hardware. The Red Stars team they left behind is now rebuilding around star striker Mallory Swanson after a tumultuous few years behind the scenes. Chicago will want to prove themselves against one of the deepest teams in the league and show what life looks like after the departure of a number of their veterans.

Kansas City used the pick they acquired in the Lynn Williams trade to select Michelle Cooper at No. 2. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

April 30: Gotham FC at Kansas City Current

Lynn Williams never registered regular-season minutes for the Current, but this matchup has the potential for revenge nonetheless. Kansas City traded Williams to Gotham FC right as she made her return to the field with the USWNT, after a serious hamstring issue kept her sidelined in 2022.

Relinquishing Williams likely freed up salary cap space for the Current’s stacked midfield and also for rookie Michelle Cooper, whose prowess at Duke made her a clear target for Kansas City with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Cooper is untested at the professional level, meaning this particular game could become a referendum on veteran experience over rookie ceiling.

Gotham will likely be in revenge mode as a team, looking to improve upon their league-worst finish in 2022 and showcase their own offseason moves. If Kansas City is the standard, Gotham will want to rise to meet it.

May 27: North Carolina Courage at Racing Louisville

The offseason’s other surprising trade also involved North Carolina, with the Courage sending Carson Pickett and longtime captain Abby Erceg to Louisville in exchange for rising USWNT outside back Emily Fox. In soccer terms, the trade made some sense for both teams, but the unceremonious end to Erceg’s time at the club where she won multiple championships wasn’t lost on the center back.

Both teams will be eager to show off how they’ve honed their roster in the offseason, with North Carolina attempting to rise back to the upper echelon of the NWSL and Racing Louisville pushing for their first-ever playoff spot. The addition of Erceg and Pickett radically changes the outlook of Louisville’s defense, and they’ll have extra motivation to keep the Courage off the scoresheet. At the other end of the field, Fox is working her way into an assured U.S. roster spot for the 2023 World Cup and will want to excel with the same freedom on the pitch that she had in Louisville.

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

The 2023 NWSL is shaping up to be one of the most competitive yet, as a new wave of talent enters the league. With the 2023 World Cup taking place in the middle of the NWSL season, expect top internationals to step up their game prior to the tournament and underrated teammates to emerge in their absence.

Let’s take a look at who seems poised for a career year in 2023, as availability ebbs and flows around the international calendar. These are my predictions for the top team and individual awards this NWSL season.

Rookie of the Year: Alyssa Thompson, Angel City FC

Competition for this award will be fierce, with the first two 2023 draft picks — Thompson and Kansas City’s Michelle Cooper — likely to see a fair amount of playing time and a number of late-round gems looking strong in preseason. This award went to a defender last year in San Diego’s Naomi Girma, so I anticipate it swinging back around to an attacker in 2023.

Thompson is the easy choice due to her high-profile entry into the NWSL. The No. 1 pick should have the opportunity to produce as a bigger part of Angel City’s attack due to the injuries they’re carrying along their frontline.

Dark-horse candidate: Messiah Bright, Orlando Pride

(Harry How/Getty Images)

Defender of the Year: Sarah Gorden, Angel City FC

Sarah Gorden’s return to an NWSL defense is going to feel like a breath of fresh air after a season lost to an ACL tear. The center back plays her position with a freedom of spacing thanks to her blistering speed, which allows her to push forward in distribution while also making key recovery runs. Angel City might need positional flexibility from Gorden as they settle on their defensive personnel at center and outside back, and she’ll take the opportunity and run with it.

Dark-horse candidate: Tierna Davidson, Chicago Red Stars (if she doesn’t make the USWNT roster)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Bella Bixby, Portland Thorns

Kailen Sheridan deservedly won this award last year, but with the Canadian goalkeeper likely absent during the World Cup period, other top performers could rise to the occasion. Bixby has been a consistent presence for the reigning champion Thorns, but sometimes gets overlooked due to the excellence of her backline. If the Thorns make another run at the NWSL Shield, Bixby could finally get some of the individual attention befitting her performances.

Dark-horse candidate: Abby Smith, Gotham FC

(Jamie Sabau/USA TODAY Sports)

Coach of the Year: Casey Stoney, San Diego Wave

Stoney won Coach of the Year in 2022, and there’s very little reason to think she’d give up the title in 2023. The Wave have constructed their roster to be able to withstand pressure from opponents and take the next step toward controlling tempo and evolving their style of play in Year 2. Stoney also has the challenge of dealing with World Cup absences. If the Wave can both produce top internationals and stay close in the Shield race, expect Stoney to have this one locked up.

Dark-horse candidate: Seb Hines, Orlando Pride

Golden Boot: Mallory Swanson, Chicago Red Stars

Swanson will likely miss a number of games for the World Cup, but with the way she is playing so far this year, it might not matter in the Golden Boot race. Swanson has had the task of being Chicago’s primary goal-scorer and playmaker in recent seasons, notching 11 goals and eight assists in 2022. This season, the Red Stars will rely on her once again as their attacking engine. If she can stay healthy, the clinical finishing she’s been showcasing with the U.S. women’s national team could put her on top.

Dark-horse candidate: Ebony Salmon, Houston Dash

(Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

MVP: Sam Coffey, Portland Thorns

A defensive midfielder has never won NWSL MVP, but if there was ever a year to break the mold, it would be 2023. Coffey has found herself on the outside of the USWNT midfield bubble for this summer’s World Cup, and players who have just missed out on an international opportunity have thrived in the past. In fact, if the U.S. struggles in the midfield on the international stage, Coffey’s excellence at the league level might be thrown into sharp contrast, garnering the attention her position sometimes lacks.

Dark-horse candidate: Midge Purce, Gotham FC

Challenge Cup champion: Orlando Pride

The winner of the Challenge Cup should be a squad best set up to withstand World Cup absences, and the Pride might just fit that bill. Orlando has been in a strategic rebuild over the last few offseasons, and the team’s up-and-coming talent should have significant playing time under their belts by the middle of the regular season. While NWSL Shield contenders have to manage more rotations, teams with their core intact might be able to snag the first Cup of the year.

Dark-horse candidate: Angel City FC

OL Reign's Jess Fishlock and Laura Harvey (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

NWSL Shield: OL Reign

The Reign play some of the most intricate soccer in the NWSL, and they suffered no real loss of talent over the offseason. The 2022 Shield winners still have room to grow as a squad, including integrating their frontline into the smothering possession-based style of their midfield. They’ll also have to be versatile in handling international absences mid-season, but the Shield rewards consistency, and the Reign are the most consistent club in the league under coach Laura Harvey.

Dark-horse candidate: San Diego Wave

NWSL Champion: Kansas City Current

Unlike the NWSL Shield, winning the NWSL Championship is about peaking at the right time. It might take the Current a few months to begin to gel after an offseason of intense roster reshuffling, but if they can ride the wave of World Cup returners into their best run of form, they’ll be difficult to break down in the postseason. Head coach Matt Potter now has NWSL final experience and should have the tactical ability to keep his group versatile enough to solve any problem.

Dark-horse candidate: Portland Thorns

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

After finishing in last place in their inaugural season in 2021, Kansas City rode the underdog mindset in 2022. Head coach Matt Potter and general manager Cami Levin Ashton made a few important tweaks to a young group in order to peak at the right time and make it all the way to the NWSL Championship.

In 2023, the underdog label is far behind the Current, who signed some of the NWSL’s biggest free agents in the offseason. With full buy-in from ambitious ownership, the Current have become one of the premier destinations for professional women’s soccer players in the U.S. in only three years. But after a successful 2022 season, how will the team’s chemistry withstand all the new additions?

2022 review: Underdog energy

The Kansas City Current of 2022 played a cohesive, sometimes chaotic style of soccer that other teams found difficult to break down. While they weren’t immune to conceding first, they almost always found a way to come back to challenge for a result.

The team played in an expansive 3-5-2 formation, with three center-backs behind a high-flying midfield that moved the ball quickly and found space for their attackers. A number of young and relatively inexperienced players helped reset the team’s culture, with key veterans like Lo’eau Labonta and AD Franch setting the tone.

The team committed to the grind of the NWSL season early on with a preseason process they’re using again this year. Labonta told reporters in February that the heavy lift days the team holds in Florida in the preseason are a “rite of passage” and that the time spent in camp set them in the right direction in 2022.

“Matt [Potter] has actually given credit to us being here and grinding here for why we’re able to make it so far in the league last year,” Labonta said. “I think it’s true.”

The Current ultimately finished fourth in the regular-season standings, a vast improvement from their league-worst finish in 2021. Their style of play proved perfect for the NWSL’s knockout playoffs, as they advanced past the Houston Dash and then Shield winners OL Reign. A collective never-say-die attitude took them all the way to the 2022 NWSL final, where their inexperience showed in a 2-0 defeat to a Portland Thorns team ready for the big moment.

The Current made the biggest splash of free agency, signing midfielder Debinha. (Jaylynn Nash/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Building a superteam

Rather than running it back with the benefit of hard-earned experience, the Current appeared unsatisfied with being runner-up. In the offseason, Levin Ashton took a clinical approach to push the roster to the next level, re-negotiating Sam Mewis’ contract as she continues to rehab her knee and abruptly sending Lynn Williams to Gotham FC in order to make room for other players.

The Current signed Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat away from Chicago, traded up for No. 2 draft pick Michelle Cooper and, most crucially, won the bidding war for Brazilian superstar Debinha. They’ve since also signed top Swedish outside back Hanna Glas.

Players have noted the club’s resources and facilities as some of the best in the world. But the decision to move Williams, in a trade the USWNT forward called “shocking,” also showcased the ruthlessness the team feels is necessary to improve in the long term.

Potter said he declined to bring non-roster invitees into Kansas City’s 2023 camp — reversing a common practice among NWSL teams — because making the 28-player roster (24 first-team and four supplemental) is going to be difficult enough for draft picks and other acquisitions.

“To be perfectly honest, there was an opportunity to bring in more players, but it would only be false hope for them,” he said. “Because the reality is to make this roster even with the players that we have here, it’s going to be super competitive.”

Early in preseason, Labonta wasn’t worried about the locker room being disrupted by big-name players.

“I actually had a meeting with Matt yesterday, and I was just saying that this team already, we have great human beings,” she said. “There’s not one bad person on this team.”

As for team rules, they’re keeping it simple: “Don’t be late, don’t leave your gear around. That’s literally it. That’s all that we have to enforce,” Labonta said.

Lo'eau Labonta and the Current thrived on their team chemistry last season. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

2023 Outlook: Keeping the culture

While spirits are high in Kansas City, ambitious offseasons also present challenges in player management. Some players who carried the load last year were waived or traded in the offseason, and others who remain are going to see their roles on the team reduced when the roster is at full strength.

Even Labonta, one of the team’s breakout stars of 2022, has a new level of competition at her position.

“I think a lot of the people saw in the offseason signings, we signed about 12,000 midfielders — that’s my position — but it only makes it so much more competitive,” she said.

The team does have positional imbalances, having loaded up on central midfielders and wide defenders in the offseason. They lost defender Kristen Edmonds to free agency and will have to control games through the prowess of the midfield so they don’t get into high-risk shootouts. The Current should be well-positioned for the World Cup period — when they will be without Glas, Debinha and likely Franch — thanks to an influx of players who are used to participating in other teams’ systems and can get up to speed quickly.

No matter what, Kansas City players will be in fierce competition for playing time, with the hope that their deep midfield can score enough goals to compensate for vulnerabilities in the central defense.

“We talk often about competition being about striving together,” Potter said. “How can we, whoever’s out there, take the mantle of what we have as a team identity and express that for something bigger than ourselves?”

The NWSL has a history of the best team on paper not always being the squad that hoists the trophy at the end of the season. The Current are taking a very different approach than what worked for them last year, but if they can get the balance right, they might become unbeatable once the playoffs roll around.

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

With the release of Week 1 rosters, the NWSL offseason is almost behind us. The league’s 10th regular season kicks off with a doubleheader on Saturday and many teams looking different than when the 2022 season ended thanks to roster movement through trades, the draft and the NWSL’s first free-agency period.

The race for the Shield and the six playoff spots was tighter than ever in 2022. As the 2023 season begins, let’s evaluate where every team stands in the preseason power rankings now that rosters are nearly settled.

1. OL Reign

2022 regular-season finish: 1st

The Reign didn’t have to do much in the offseason after winning the NWSL Shield in 2022 and returning one of the most balanced rosters in the league. The midfield of Rose Lavelle, Jess Fishlock and Quinn remains one of the most formidable in the NWSL. The team also added more defensive depth with the acquisition of Emily Sonnett and attacking firepower with the trade for second-year forward Elyse Bennett.

The Reign’s biggest question mark comes during the World Cup period, when they lose multiple players to their national teams. But longtime manager Laura Harvey has proven to have a remarkably steady hand during a regular-season campaign.

2. San Diego Wave

2022 regular-season finish: 3rd

The Wave are poised for another excellent year after exceeding all expectations in their inaugural season. They balanced their midfield with the free-agency acquisition of Danny Colaprico, and they return a number of top internationals that will make them difficult to break down throughout the regular season.

San Diego will deal with World Cup absences, but the team’s depth has also improved, giving them the opportunity to stay in the Shield race until World Cup performers return.

3. Kansas City Current

2022 regular-season finish: 5th

The Current had arguably the most ambitious offseason in the NWSL, acquiring more midfield assets and a few defensive reinforcements. If new signee Debinha is ready and available for much of the season before the World Cup, Kansas City could be at the forefront of the Shield race by July.

They will, however, have to contend with slight roster imbalance. Sweden international Hanna Glas will shore up the defense, but the team targeted the backline less than other areas in the offseason. The Current’s formation might help them compensate for getting their strongest signings on the pitch together, but it will be a delicate balance for head coach Matt Potter.

Sophia Smith returns to Portland in 2023 after a breakout year for club and country. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

4. Portland Thorns

2022 regular-season finish: 2nd

The Thorns rival the Reign for steadiness in their roster construction with top performers at every position, led by 2022 NWSL MVP and Final MVP Sophia Smith. While the Thorns will lose a number of key contributors during the World Cup, their depth will be formidable, just as it was in 2019.

The only question lingering for the Thorns is the new coaching staff. After the departures of Mark Parsons and one-year manager Rhian Wilkinson, former assistant Mike Norris now leads the club. Even if he is a revelation in his first year, the inconsistency at the top might slow down the reigning champions.

5. Houston Dash

2022 regular-season finish: 4th

The Dash had a slightly less flashy offseason than their 2022 quarterfinal opponent, Kansas City, but they go into 2023 as solid as ever. New manager Sam Laity brought in record-breaking rookie scorer Diana Ordoñez from North Carolina to pair with rising England forward Ebony Salmon on the frontline, and the perennially underrated Katie Lind (neé Naughton) will continue to anchor Houston’s defense.

6. Orlando Pride

2022 regular-season finish: 10th

The Pride made a number of savvy business moves in the offseason and, as a result, could significantly improve upon their 10th-place finish in 2022. The team is going young, with No. 3 draft pick Emily Madril likely starting at center back and other rookies getting serious time in the attack during preseason. Under new permanent head coach Seb Hines, the Pride appear to be forging a new identity on the field, and they could surprise more than one opponent this year.

No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson scored in her Angel City preseason debut this month. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

7. Angel City FC

2022 regular-season finish: 8th

Angel City could be one of the biggest boom-or-bust projects in the NWSL. They still appear to be without star forwards Christen Press and Sydney Leroux, and their preseason friendly against Club América showed a lack of depth at outside back and in the defensive midfield. On the other hand, No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson should be electric, center-back Sarah Gorden returns from an ACL tear, and other reinforcements during the season could create just the right mix in Los Angeles.

8. Chicago Red Stars

2022 regular-season finish: 6th

The player departures from Chicago at the beginning of the offseason were jarring, as the team lost the core of its midfield to free agency. To compensate, the Red Stars drafted well, picked up quality talent on the waiver wire and made a key addition with the signing of Brazil midfielder Julia Bianchi. Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger should return to bolster the starting defense, and breakout star Mallory Swanson is good enough to push the team up the standings on her own.

9. Racing Louisville

2022 regular-season finish: 9th

Don’t be surprised if Racing Louisville is in the playoff hunt for the first time in team history in 2023. The additions of Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg immediately upgraded the defense, and former Tigres forward Uchenna Kenu has the ability to shine in the NWSL. New players join an already balanced midfield, and Racing will be losing fewer players to the World Cup than some other clubs.

10. Gotham FC

2022 regular-season finish: 12th

There’s no doubt that Gotham will be better in 2023 than they were in 2022, but to what extent depends on their ability to find enough cohesion to overtake the teams in front of them. Lynn Williams will be the key to new manager Juan Carlos Amorós’ style of play, and the additions of Yazmeen Ryan and rookie Jenna Nighswonger should greatly improve the team’s midfield. The Gotham of 2022 looked better than their record on paper showed, so progress may just be a matter of gelling on the field.

Trinity Rodman scored four goals for the Spirit last season after winning 2021 Rookie of the Year. (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

11. Washington Spirit

2022 regular-season finish: 11th

Washington’s attack is still one of the most talented in the NWSL, with Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman backed by key playmaker Ashley Sanchez. Those mainstays struggled in 2022 as managerial dysfunction and a punishing schedule set the Spirit adrift. New head coach Mark Parson made some bold moves in the offseason, but his approach to the draft and Washington’s defense makes it seem like the team is preparing to contend in 2024 rather than immediately.

12. North Carolina Courage

2022 regular-season finish: 7th

Never count out the Courage, but based on their offseason alone, they have a lot of work to do to contend for championships again. The loss of Debinha will loom large over the early part of the season, while new pick-up Emily Fox will need to do a lot of heavy lifting on defense to make up for the departures of Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett. North Carolina seemed to go against common wisdom with a hyper-specific draft approach, and now the pressure lies with head coach Sean Nahas to forge a new team.

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

To say Gotham FC’s 2022 season didn’t go as planned would be an understatement. Despite signing a number of high-profile players to the roster before the season, the New Jersey club finished last in the NWSL standings after scoring the fewest goals and conceding the most.

The team’s response in the 2023 offseason was not to completely commit to a rebuild, but rather to move with ambition. Gotham was involved in trading both the No. 1 and the No. 2 picks in the NWSL draft, while picking up a few key signings through the league’s first free-agency period.

Gotham’s offseason moves show a deep commitment to improving upon their 2022 results, but as the dust settles, let’s take a look at a team still searching for its identity.

2022 Year in Review: A rough season in the rearview

Results in soccer don’t always tell the full picture. Some teams simply have bad luck, and their underlying stats outperform their real-life results. Usually, the response to that is to trust the process and let the results start to reflect the positive play.

But Gotham’s stats in 2022 didn’t really indicate that this would be the right way forward. The New Jersey club finished last in the NWSL with a goal differential of minus-30. The advanced stats weren’t much kinder: Gotham finished last in American Soccer Analysis’ g+ estimation, which computes collective positive actions that lead to goal-scoring chances. They were also last in the league in xG, which computes the quality of goal-scoring chances, and xPass, which computes likelihood of successful passing.

In short, Gotham struggled to progress the ball and turn progression into quality chances. Loss of possession led to pressure on the backline, and they had a hard time getting back into games after conceding goals.

“We absolutely are very unhappy with where we ended last season. We’re all really competitive people, we’re in freakin’ New Jersey, New York. We don’t lose, like that’s not okay there,” general manager Yael Averbuch West said at the 2023 NWSL draft.

Star striker Midge Purce also didn’t mince words when speaking to reporters during Gotham media day this week: “Last year is not something that was enjoyable for me. Not scoring goals, it makes me sick. And this year, I want to score goals on both the national team and for club. I want to be a top player in both settings.”

At the draft in January, Averbuch West reflected on a team in search of its identity. Heading into the 2023 season, Gotham is prioritizing attitude and team fit as much as soccer qualities.

“It’s not just looking at soccer players, it’s looking at people who are going to help us continue to build and elevate our culture through that — the way they view their craft, their footballing minds and just who they are as professionals,” she said.

Gotham made a blockbuster trade for USWNT forward Lynn Williams in the offseason. (Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Offseason moves: Pulling off a strategic rebuild

Faced with the team’s lack of scoring in 2022, Gotham made intentional moves to bolster very specific areas of the pitch. The club acquired Yazmeen Ryan from Portland in exchange for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. In Ryan, Gotham gets a player who is as comfortable on the frontline as she is in the attacking midfield and who was arguably one of the best players on the pitch during the 2022 NWSL championship game.

They also leveled up in the attack, bringing in USWNT forward Lynn Williams to round out the front three with Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu. Williams is a prolific NWSL goal-scorer who has looked like her old self with the USWNT after coming off of a long-term hamstring injury. Gotham will likely lose at least one forward during the 2023 World Cup, and will possibly be without all three starters, but the addition of Williams will create new problems for opposing defenses to solve.

Williams also provides a good example of how new head coach Juan Carlos Amorós wants his team to play.

“We want to be a team that dominates all the six moments of the game,” he said at the draft. “I am a big fan of the counter-press. We’re trying to regain the ball as high as possible, trying to create chances out of those situations.”

Dominating all moments of the game include plans for when the team is controlling possession, losing possession and regaining possession. To set a new defensive tone, Amorós’ Gotham could shift to a high-risk, high-reward defensive press that will attempt to pounce on unwitting NWSL backlines.

In that regard, Williams is the perfect player for the system. For a team that looked a step off in defensive transition in 2022, the change will be noticeable.

“[She brings] the right dose of standards on the defensive side,” Amorós said of Williams. “So everyone is committed.”

When asked about her approach to off-the-ball defending, Williams said in an introductory press conference, “I don’t think it’s a secret that I am like a very defensive hard working forward. I think that if you can win the ball higher up the field, then you don’t have to run back as far, so why not do that? I think that I can bring an intensity to the game that’s just, the quicker we win [the ball] back, the quicker we can be in control of the game, and the quicker we can score goals.”

While Purce wouldn’t divulge particular tactical shifts during media day, she expressed confidence in the team’s new approach.

“[Amorós is] very good at making sure everyone knows that we’re on the same page,” she said. “So tactically, technically, in every way, we all know what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Gotham hired head coach Juan Carlos Amorós away from Houston in November. (Courtesy of Gotham FC)

2023 outlook: Risk and reward

While Gotham boosted their attacking depth in the offseason, their season might live or die at the hands of their defense. Gotham shored up the right-back position with the free-agency signing of Kelley O’Hara, who is functionally replacing former NWSL Defender of the Year Caprice Dydasco. The team also signed former Portland backup goalkeeper Abby Smith, who has NWSL starting experience and should take over full time.

But so much of the team’s 2023 success will depend on what happens when Gotham’s counter-press breaks down and the team has to adjust to quick shifts in play. The club has a number of options for center-back pairings, including Ali Krieger, Mandy Freeman and Kristen Edmonds. But they don’t necessarily have any one player who can keep up with the pace of speedy opposing forwards, so they’ll have to be prepared for counter-attacks when their energy dips.

The team is also relying heavily on the return of Allie Long in the defensive midfield to control the pace of games. During her career, Long has steadily worked her way backward in position, having developed into a hyper-accurate possessor and passer before taking a season off due to pregnancy. The 35-year-old could be the key to making sure the defense doesn’t suffer from quick switches in play in moments when Gotham has to save their legs and wants to possess.

Gotham might be able to score goals at will in 2023, but their success will depend on what they do without the ball.

“We want people to drive a standard, the winning mentality,” said Amorós.

That might be exactly the identity that Gotham is looking for.

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