By Becca Rightnour | @BeccaFCwrites (and additions by Elisabeth Schendel)
History of the NWSL
Somehow, someway you have stumbled across the National Women’s Soccer League, and you may be asking yourself who you should cheer for. Maybe you were like me prior to 2015 and didn’t even know such a league existed, but let me tell you, the NWSL exists and it contains some of the best players in the world spread out over nine different teams. The league was founded in 2012 as the replacement for the defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League and is expected to expand to Louisville in 2021. Rumors of other expansion cities have included Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Sacramento, but none have been made official.
Originally there were eight teams in the league when it began its first season in 2013; Portland Thorns, Boston Breakers, Kansas City FC, Sky Blue FC, Seattle Reign, Western New York Flash, Chicago Red Stars, and Washington Spirit. In 2014 and 2016, the league added the Houston Dash and Orlando Pride respectively. Then in 2017, the Boston Breakers folded, Western New York Flash relocated and became the North Carolina Courage, and Kansas City FC ceased operations and moved to Utah, where they became the Utah Royals in 2018. Seattle Reign has since undergone two name changes, where they went from Seattle Reign to just Reign FC, and finally after Olympic Lyonnaise invested in their team, they became the OL Reign. In this league where inclusion is paramount, there is a team for everybody. Check out the list below and you might just find the team for you.
North Carolina Courage
If you are looking for a dominant team that wins most of its games and has been in the NWSL finals the last three years running, including winning the last two championships, look no further than the North Carolina Courage. The NC Courage is also the only team able to boast winning the NWSL Shield and the NWSL Championship in the same year.
Located in Cary, North Carolina, and playing at WakeMed Soccer Park, the North Carolina Courage is a force to be reckoned with on the pitch. With star players like the US National Team’s Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, and international players like Abby Erceg, Stephanie Labbe, and Debhina, the Courage have a stacked roster full of talent. In 2018 they only lost one game out of twenty-four regular-season matches. They have also managed to hold their own in international tournaments against the likes of Lyon, Manchester City, and Paris St-Germain.
Despite being so dominant, they subscribe to their Coach Paul Riley’s mentality that they are the underdogs and that everybody is counting them out. The NCC has a rich history, despite only joining the league in 2017 when they relocated from New York and changed their name from Western New York Flash to North Carolina Courage. They have an affiliation with the North Carolina FC of USL.
Sky Blue FC
If you’re looking to root for a team with potential then Sky Blue is the team for you. Sky Blue hasn’t made the playoffs since the inaugural 2013 season and has struggled to find their footing. In 2018, they lost 23 out of 24 games, but they managed to get a loyal following behind them that just wanted them to actually win a game and succeed.
Sky Blue is located in Harrison, New Jersey, and play at the Red Bull Arena. The team in recent years has made some great moves to change the perception of their organization. They have been building up a team around players such as US Captain, Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh, Midge Purce, McCall Zerboni, and Imani Dorsey. With the powerful players that they have added, they are going to try and put 2018 as far in their rearview as possible. The younger players like Dorsey and Pugh will be the building blocks for a more successful future.
While the last few years have been difficult, there is no arguing the fight of the Sky Blue FC. They are resilient and the type of team you want to cheer for. They are the true underdogs but don’t underestimate them, because they might just surprise you. The team has had flashes of brilliance back when they had players like Sam Kerr and Kelley O’Hara. Perhaps they can flourish once more. They also have a great supporter section called Cloud 9, who cheer them on at each game.
The Houston Dash are a team with a lot of heart. If you are looking for a team with a chilled and laid back, but still tough attitude then Houston is the team for you. They have never won an NWSL championship, but they are always a tough team to play. With slogans like ‘Dash the F On’ they are a team built for speed and with their bright orange jersey’s they are hard to miss.
The Houston Dash team is located in Houston, Texas, and plays at the BBVA Stadium in town. In recent years, the Dash has gone through a bit of a transition period with some of the rookies and newer players stepping up to take leadership roles. The English International, Rachel Daly now co-captains the Dash alongside goalkeeper Jane Campbell. The Houston Dash can also boast having league assist leader Christine Nairn on their team, as well as players like Kristie Mewis, Nichelle Prince, Allysha Chapman, and Sophie Schmidt who all have international-level experience.
While they haven’t found success in trophies yet, their mix of veteran and youth will only be a positive moving forward. The Dash is affiliated with the MLS team the Houston Dynamo, and will occasionally play on the same day or weekend as the men’s side. They also share the same color scheme as the men’s side. Their loyal supporter group is called the Bayou City Republic.
One of the original 8 NWSL Teams and favored to give the North Carolina Courage a challenge this tournament, the Washington Spirit are a team built on tradition. Founded in 2013, the Washington Spirit is currently a rather young team in the sense that most of their players are in their early to mid-twenties, and are in the midst of major culture overhaul. While they have never won an NWSL championship they came close in 2016 when they took 2nd place and made it to the finals. The Washington Spirit relies heavily on their ability to read the game and be more agile than the other teams. They’re also strong defensively with a future national team goalkeeper in Aubrey Bledsoe.
Located in the metropolitan area of Washington DC, the Washington Spirit split their time between three different stadiums. They play at Audi Field, Maryland Soccerplex, and Segra Field during the regular NWSL season. Their captain is mid-fielder Andi Sullivan, and they also boast players such as World Cup Champion Rose Lavelle, as well as 2017 Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch. While their team is more inexperienced in comparison to others, the younger players have turned the club around and are seeking to get the Spirit back to their winning ways.
The Washington Spirit are independently owned but as of 2020, share the training facilities with the men’s MLS team, DC United. If you’re looking to root for a team that has youth on their side and is no doubt future NWSL champions, then the Washington Spirit is for you. Their supporter group the Spirit Squadron are one of the most loyal, friendly, and vocal groups.
Chicago Red Stars
Also one of the original eight, the Chicago Red Stars are one of the more popular teams in the NWSL. They are a team that consistently makes the play-offs of the NWSL and last year in 2019 they actually made the finals, although they fell 4-0 to the Courage. The Chicago Red Stars have a variety of different styles of play, and often excel defensively and at controlling the midfield. If you like a team with well-known players then Chicago is the team for you.
Located in Chicago, the team actually plays its games in Bridgeview, Illinois, at the SeatGeek stadium. Since 2015, Chicago is the only team that can say they’ve made the playoffs of the NWSL consistently. They are captained by national team star Julie Ertz, as well as boasting multiple other World Cup Champions like Alyssa Naeher, Morgan Gautrat (formerly Morgan Brian), and Tierna Davidson. They also have internationals like Katie Johnson, Bianca St. Georges, and Yuki Nagasato.
The Chicago Red Stars are independently owned but frequently play doubleheaders with the Chicago Fire, Chicago’s MLS team. Their supporter group is called the Chicago Local 134, the successor to their previous supporter group Section 134. They are a friendly and strong group, always welcoming to new fans. With a lot of star power, the Red Stars are a good pick for a team if you’re new to the league.
The Portland Thorns are one of the most popular teams in the NWSL. One of the original 8 teams, they have won the NWSL champion a record-tying two times, as well as winning the NWSL shield once. They have also made the playoffs six times out of seven seasons. Portland is a tenacious team that doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. They have a strong defense and an even strong ability to score.
Located in Portland, Oregon, the Thorns play their games at Providence Park in the downtown area of Portland. They are consistently revamping the stadium, always expanding and adding more seats for their fans. They have the highest level of attendance for the NWSL and are the 10th most attended of all soccer clubs in the country. They break records for attendance almost every year. The Thorns are captained by Christine Sinclair from Canada, who holds the record for most international goals scored by a man or woman. They also have a couple of USWNT players on their roster like Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan, Adrianna Franch, and Tobin Heath. Heath is arguably their largest and most popular star due to her time with the US National Team.
The Portland Thorns are affiliated with the Portland Timbers of the MLS. The Thorns also have a strong connection with their fans and supporter group the Rose City Riveters, who often create massive posters for them, called “tifos.” Out of the entire league, the Rose City Riveters are probably the most vocal, often coming up with chants for their team. If you like a team that contains playmakers like Sinclair and Heath and has a soccer-rich community, then Portland would be the team for you.
OL Reign has gone through a multitude of changes over the past few years, not limited to changing its name twice. Currently, they are owned by The OL Groupe, who famously own the French clubs, Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique Lyonnais Féminin. One thing that remains consistent is the hardcore, play-your-heart-out attitude that attracts fans to the Reign. With slogans like ‘She Plays Here’ and ‘Be Bold’, the Reign has a unique DNA that makes them special. They are the rebels, the fighters who somehow always find their way back.
Since moving from Seattle, OL Reign is now based in Tacoma, Washington, and plays at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma. OL Reign’s roster contains the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, and Jodie Taylor. That triumvirate of players is able to shake the best defense and score decisive goals. OL Reign’s Bethany Balcer was named the NWSL’s 2019 Rookie of the Year, earning her a callup to the USWNT training camp in December 2019. The Reign are well known in the NWSL for having a massive rivalry with the Portland Thorns, which churn out some of the best games of each season. While they have never won an NWSL Championship, they were the runners-up in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. They also managed to win the NWSL Shield for the least amount of goals scored against them in those two seasons.
The OL Reign supporter’s group is called the Royal Guard, although there are some smaller groups called Queen Anne’s Collective and Fortune’s Favorites. If you like a team with a lot of grit and fire, then OL Reign is for you. They are brash, bold, and resilient, with a flair of greatness. They are independently owned but will occasionally play double-headers with the Seattle Sounders against teams like Portland, Chicago, and Houston.
Currently the newest expansion team in the NWSL, the Utah Royals entered the league in 2018. Though technically the youngest of the teams, the Utah Royals received a majority of their roster from FC Kansas City, when it ceased operations in 2017. The Royals are known for their tenacity and ability to play at high altitude. If you like a team that is hungry and always on the lookout for success, then the Royals are your team. They are the only team that can boast beating the North Carolina Courage during the 2018 season, thanks to a stunning goal by Brittany Ratcliffe.
Considered one of the best teams to play for in the NWSL, due to their state-of-the-art facilities, the Utah Royals play in Sandy, Utah at the Rio Tinto stadium (also known by fans as The Riot). Their current captain, Amy Rodriguez is a fierce competitor and drives her team towards greatness. Utah is a very versatile team because they have powerhouses like Vero Boquete, Desiree Scott, Gunny Jonsdottir, and Diana Matheson in the midfield, brick houses like Kelley O’Hara and Mallory Weber on the backline, as well as dynamic strikers like Christen Press (a local favorite) and Rodriguez up top.
The Royals have an affiliation with Real Salt Lake of the MLS and the Real Monarchs of the USL. All teams are owned by Dell Loy Hansen. Their supporter’s group is called The Court and is often found filling Rio Tinto stadium with the sound of their drums, cheering them on.
Founded in 2016, Orlando Pride is a team of international superstars. Out of its current roster, the Pride has fifteen players that have International playing experience like playing at the Women’s World Cup. The Pride is a team that on paper should be at the top of the league, but due to a lack of cohesion and questionable coaching, they have found themselves at the bottom of the table more often than not. The only time they’ve ever made the playoffs was in 2017, and last year in 2019 they finished dead last in the standings. However, they are a team that never gives up and seem to be waiting for the stars to align. There is no doubt that Orlando is talented and if you’re willing to wait for those flashes of brilliance then the Orlando Pride is the team for you.
Located in Orlando, Florida, the Pride play their games at Exploria Stadium in the downtown area of Orlando. What makes their stadium unique is the forty-nine rainbow-colored seats that they have in honor of the citizens of Orlando who lost their lives in the deadly shooting at the Pulse night club. The captain of the Orlando Pride, Ashlyn Harris, has said that these seats remind them of what they’re playing for and that it’s bigger than soccer. Orlando has phenomenal strikers in the form of six-time Women’s FIFA Player of the Year Marta, Sydney Leroux, Claire Emslie, and Alex Morgan. Their midfield is anchored by players such as Camila and Emily Van Egmond, while their defense has an absurd amount of great defenders like Ali Krieger, Ali Riley, Shelina Zadorsky, Carson Pickett, Toni Pressley, and recently, Emily Sonnett, just to name a few.
The Orlando Pride is affiliated with Orlando City who plays for the MLS. In fact, Sydney Leroux from the Pride is married to Dom Dwyer from Orlando City. The supporter group for the Orlando Pride is called the Black Swans, and despite all of the Pride’s losses, they remain loyal to their team. Orlando is a team with a lot of potential and one day could be at the top of the standings.
If you’d like to know the three players to watch for each team participating in the NWSL Challenge Cup, check out my article.
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