A week after the conclusion of the Challenge Cup, the NWSL will kick off its 2021 regular season with five games this weekend.
It's the latest start ever for the NWSL, which won't finish the 2021 playoffs until the weekend before Thanksgiving. Like other U.S. pro soccer leagues, the late start allowed teams in the NWSL to assess the hosting requirements in their markets and open with fans.
Here's a look at what's new in 2021 ...
1. Two new teams. After playing with nine teams for the last three seasons following the collapse of the Boston Breakers, the NWSL is back up to 10 teams with the addition of expansion team Racing Louisville (originally announced as Proof Louisville FC) and the return to Kansas City (replacing the Utah Royals). Both teams will be looking for their first victories in 2021 after going winless in the 2021 Challenge Cup.
2. New name in New Jersey. Sky Blue FC changed its name to NJ/NY Gotham FC ahead of its first season as a full-time tenant at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Within the limits of COVID-19 protocols, Red Bull Arena will be filled for Saturday's opener against the Houston Dash, quite a turnaround for a team that struggled for years at Rutgers University.
3. No break for the Olympics. Unlike in 2016 when the NWSL broke for 25 days before and after the Rio Olympics, the NWSL will play through the Tokyo Olympics in which many U.S. and Canadian players are expected to compete in women's soccer. The league will break in June, September and October, however, when national teams play during FIFA women's windows.
4. Expanded playoff field. The NWSL playoffs have always consisted of four teams competing in a single-game knockout format. In 2021, the top six teams will advance to the playoffs with the top two seeds receiving first-round byes. The playoffs will end with the championship game on Nov. 20.
5. First full season on CBS. This will be the first full season for the NWSL on CBS, the CBS Sports Network, Paramount+ and Twitch. CBS aired seven Challenge Cup and Fall Series games in 2020 and carried last Saturday's Challenge Cup final between Portland and Gotham FC, drawing an average of 534,000 viewers. CBS will air three more regular-season matches as well as the final in November, and CBS Sports Network will carry 14 regular-season and playoff games. The rest will air on Paramount+ or Twitch.
6. Increases in pay. The NWSL confirmed increases in a team's salary cap (up 5 percent to $682,500), the maximum player salary (up 5 percent to $52,500) and minimum player salary (up 10 percent to $22,000). The salary cap doesn't take into account payments by the U.S. and Canadian federations to allocated players or allocation money introduced in 2020 to allow teams to pay players (including allocated players not taking federation money to pay their NWSL salary) above the maximum salary. In addition to salaries, the league pays for healthcare, and all players receive housing or a housing stipend of up to $3,000 per month. Teams may also provide a car as long as its value is less than $50,000.
7. More sponsors. On the eve of the 2021 regular season, the NWSL announced that Mastercard will be a sponsor. As part of the agreement, Portland's Crystal Dunn joined Mastercard's roster of soccer players serving as global brand ambassadors. Earlier in 2021, Nationwide was announced as a league sponsor, and Ally Financial signed an agreement to become a league-wide jersey sleeve sponsor.
Photo: ISI Photos/Racing Louisville