National Women’s Soccer League Completes Second Successful Return to Play
This week, The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) wrapped up its second successful round of play during the coronavirus pandemic. After this summer’s Challenge Cup — an eight team, 23 game tournament in a Utah bubble that marked the first sports league to return to play in America—the NWSL kicked off a Fall Series.
For the Fall Series, the league created three geographical pods that each consisted of three teams who played one another twice, each team hosting one of the matchups. This set up highlighted regional rivalries and allowed for limited travel. For many squads, their rosters looked different from the Challenge Cup, as many athletes played abroad and some opted out due to health and injury concerns.
In the Eastern pod, the Washington Spirit finished on top with a record of 2-1-1, topping Sky Blue FC who finished 2-0-2 and the Chicago Red Stars at 1-1-2. The Challenge Cup champions, The Houston Dash won the Southern pod with a record of 3-0-1. They beat out the once dominant North Carolina Courage who finished at 1-2-1 and the Orlando Pride (0-2-2) who were unable to participate in the Challenge Cup as players tested positive for the coronavirus in the week leading up to the tournament. In the Wesern Pod, the Portland Thorns finished on top 3-1-0 over OL Reign (1-1-2) and the Utah Royals (0-2-2).
All nine teams competed for the newly created NWSL Verizon Community Shield. The team with the most points won the Shield along with $25,000 for a small business or program in the local community, with second and third place able to donate $15,000 and $10,000 , respectively. The Portland Thorns won the Shield with 10 points and gave 25,000 dollars to Mimi’s Fresh Tees, a Black women owned t-shirt company in Portland. The second place Houston Dash (nine points) will donate $15,000 to the Houston branch of the NAACP, and the third place Washington Spirit (7 points) will give $10,000 to DC SCORES, a nonprofit that creates neighborhood arts, sports and service teams to help children across D.C. enjoy childhood regardless of their family income.
Thorns forward and all time leader in international goals Christine Sinclair topped the leaderboard by scoring six goals, including three on penalty kicks. Dash midfielder Kristie Mewis, older sister of USWNT star Sam Mewis, led all players with five assists. Thorns keeper, Britt Ekerstrom, led the way with 19 saves and a 0.75 goals against average.
Many NWSL rookies made their mark on the Fall Series. OL Reign’s Madison Hammond became the first Indigenous athlete to play in the NWSL, playing in all four games and starting in two. Her coach, Farid Benstiti, exclaimed that “Madison is the future of OL Reign.”
Top draft pick Sophia Smith scored her first professional goal for the Portland Thorns and the eighth overall pick Tziarra King built off her successful Challenge Cup and brought important new energy to the Royals. King recently took over the official Instagram’s account alongside tennis icon Sloane Stephans and recently crowned WNBA MVP, A’ja Wilson, as part of the #SeeMe campaign to amplify Black women’s voices. With the extended offseason between the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series, veteran superstars like Marta and Sinclair took the time to help the younger players improve their respective games.
Importantly, this Fall Series marked the first time a club, the Utah Royals, had an all female coaching staff including Interim Head Coach Amy LePeilbet and assistant coaches Nikki Washington and Caitlin Young. While women’s soccer grows around the world and in America, the opportunities for female coaches have not kept up. It is essential that Americans continue to develop coaching pipelines and pressuring hiring officials while fighting US soccer to pay female athletes equally.
While the Fall Series wrapped up NWSL play in 2020, the NWSL will conduct an expansion draft on Nov. 12 in order to facilitate the addition of Racing Louisville FC into the league next year. Many of the league’s best players will have an opportunity to continue playing at the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) training camp in Colorado from October 18-28. This is USWNT Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s first training camp roster and he used the Challenge Cup and Fall Series as identification games; he stated that he wanted “to reward players who have done well for their clubs and give them a chance to step up and perform in our environment.” With the USWNT looking to take home a gold in Tokyo and the NWSL continuing to expand their league and audience, the future of women’s soccer in America looks bright.