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HomeSportsSoccerNWSL kicks off 12th season with 2 new expansion clubs and momentum...

NWSL kicks off 12th season with 2 new expansion clubs and momentum aplenty

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Now that the National Women’s Soccer League has effectively distanced itself from the turbulence of two years ago, commissioner Jessica Berman is extolling the league’s momentum heading into Season 12 and beyond.

The NWSL has two new teams in Bay FC and the Utah Royals, a new media rights deal that will provide fans greater access to games and an infusion of international talent.

“Really this is the table being set for the future of the league,” Berman said Thursday. “We believe that we reset the league in 2022, 2023 we established the foundation and this is the point we really feel like the league is going to take off.”

It kicks off Friday with the Challenge Cup, a match at New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena between defending league champion Gotham FC and the San Diego Wave, who won the NWSL Shield for the best record last year.

The regular season opens on Saturday, with the Portland Thorns visiting the Kansas City Current in the first NWSL game to be broadcast on ABC.

Portland will carry a distinct Canadian connection throughout the season. Not only is Thorns captain Christine Sinclair set to compete in her final competitive soccer season after retiring from the national team, but she’ll now be joined by midfielder Jessie Fleming, who inherited the captain’s armband for Team Canada.

Fleming, the 25-year-old from London, Ont, will participate in her first NWSL campaign following an off-season transfer from England’s Chelsea that was reportedly worth nearly $315,000 US.

Veteran Canadian Janine Beckie hopes to round out the Canadian Thorns trio as she works her way back from a torn ACL suffered last March.

LISTEN | Fleming joins CBC Sports’ Player’s Own Voice podcast:

Player’s Own Voice26:33Jessie Fleming, the mindful midfielder

At just 25, Jessie Fleming has already enjoyed a full decade of being named player of the year, top college player, Top Canadian, CONCACAF All Star, and enough adulation to convince a less modest midfielder of her own greatness. But Fleming has a ‘do the work, and do it well’ attitude that has carried her to the apex of soccer, and helped her become a well-rounded, highly-educated, self-aware young leader.

The NWSL was marred by scandal in late 2021, when then-North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was accused of sexual coercion and misconduct. He was immediately dismissed and then-commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down. Subsequent investigations by both U.S. Soccer and the NWSL uncovered widespread misconduct directed at players.

The league took immediate steps to protect the players and rebuild trust among fans. Last season, ticket sales to NWSL games grew 36 per cent and average attendance at games was up 26 per cent. Television viewership was up 41 per cent year-over-year from last season.

The addition of the Royals and a San Francisco Bay Area expansion team brings the NWSL to 14 teams this year, with two more on the way: A club in Boston and another as-yet-undetermined franchise that will join the league in 2026.

The 16th club was expected to be named by the end of this year. Among the cities reportedly vying for a team are Nashville and Philadelphia.

New kids on the block

Bay FC was founded by former U.S. national team stars Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton, and Aly Wagner with financial backing by investment firm Sixth Street Partners. The team will play at San Jose’s PayPal Park, also home of Major League Soccer’s Earthquakes.

Bay FC has already made a splash by signing several high-profile international players, including Deyna Castellanos, Racheal Kundananji and Asisat Oshoala.

Canadian goalkeeper Lysianne Proulx is also a member of the expansion club.

The Royals’ evolution has been a process: The team was first founded in 2017 when FC Kansas City ceased operations. That Royals team folded amid an ownership scandal in 2020. The new owners of the Royals’ MLS partner, Real Salt Lake, were dedicated to revive the team and the expansion franchise was awarded last year.

International flavour

With additional international roster spots available this season, the league brought in 22 players from other clubs, Berman said. And there were some eye-popping transfer fees.

Zambia forward Racheal Kundananji was acquired by Bay FC from Madrid CFF for $788,000, the biggest fee ever in the women’s game. Barbra Banda, also of Zambia, was signed by the Orlando Pride after paying $740,000 to Chinese club Shanghai Shengli FC.

Field of Dreams

The Kansas City Current will unveil CPKC Stadium on Saturday, the first stadium built specifically for women’s pro soccer. The privately financed $120 million facility sits on the banks of the Missouri River and seats 11,500.

Canadian Pacific Kansas City, a railway company, acquired naming rights to the stadium.

The press box is named after Kansas City native Grant Wahl, a respected U.S. soccer journalist who passed away in late 2022 at the men’s World Cup in Qatar.

Super team?

Gotham FC wasn’t content after winning the 2023 league title. The team snapped up a number of high-profile new players, including Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett, all national team regulars.

That was in addition to an already talented roster that included Lynn Williams, Women’s World Cup winner Esther Gonzalez and Midge Purce.

Gotham finished in last place in the league in 2022 before grabbing the sixth seed in the playoffs last year and getting past the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns before defeating the Reign 2-1 for the trophy.

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