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NWSL announces plans for 2021 schedule structure

The Challenge Cup is coming back, and the playoffs are getting bigger

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The NWSL today announced its plans for the general structure of the 2021 season. The league’s plans include expanding the playoffs, extending the season to cover more of the calendar year, as well as a return for the Challenge Cup format after the latter proved a success this past summer.

Players across the league will report to clubs on February 1, with preseason set to run roughly ten weeks. That will be followed by the return of the Challenge Cup in mid-April, with NWSL leaving the door open to either hold the tournament in one or multiple locations (the “bubble” format that proved effective in multiple sports leagues), in home markets, or some combination thereof.

While the exact details of how this version of the Challenge Cup would be run remain unknown at this point, it is likely that it will last for around a month. That means the planned mid-May start of a 24-game regular season could fall just one week after the end of the Challenge Cup.

The league did circle a date for the end of its year, with the NWSL Championship set for the weekend of November 20. That will be the culmination of an expanded playoff field, with the league expanding the playoff field from four to six. This will mean that, for the first time, a majority of NWSL teams will qualify for the postseason.

The new format will include first-round byes for the top two teams during the regular season, with the other four playoff qualifiers squaring off for the other two semifinal spots. While the NWSL announcement did not mention how the playoffs will carry on from there, calendar needs probably mean a continuation of the one-off games at the higher seed’s home rather than incorporating a two-legged format.

While several aspects of the schedule remain unclear, the list of obstacles to schedule around is mostly fleshed out. The Tokyo Olympics are set for July 23-August 8, which means USWNT players and other international stars are likely to be missing from their clubs for somewhere around seven or eight weeks in the middle of the season. There will be FIFA windows, and US Soccer will probably want to hold a post-Olympics tour (particularly if the USWNT brings home another gold medal).

Meanwhile, from a venue availability perspective, the only club in the NWSL that doesn’t have another tenant in their home stadium is the Chicago Red Stars. Portland, Orlando, Houston, Sky Blue, and Utah all share a home stadium with an MLS club, while the Washington Spirit are set to split their schedule between Audi Field (home of D.C. United) and Segra Field (Loudoun United’s venue in Leesburg). OL Reign shares Cheney Stadium with both a minor league baseball team and a USL side, while North Carolina and Louisville share their homes with USL teams as well.

Nonetheless, adding Challenge Cup games early in the season gives the NWSL more flexibility to hedge against Covid-19 possibly forcing a delay of some kind. That allows teams to have higher odds of home games (and the revenue that comes with those), while also giving players more of the year in a team training environment and also lining up a popular format for broadcast partners CBS and Twitch to showcase the league.