National Women's Soccer League

National Women's Soccer League
Founded 2012 (2012)
Country United States
Confederation CONCACAF (North America)
Number of teams 9
Level on pyramid 1
Current champions Portland Thorns FC (2nd title)
Current NWSL Shield North Carolina Courage (2nd shield)
Most championships FC Kansas City
Portland Thorns FC (2 titles)
Most NWSL Shields North Carolina Courage
Seattle Reign FC (2 shields)
TV partners Lifetime
2018 NWSL season

The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is a professional women's soccer league, run by the United States Soccer Federation. At the top of the United States league system, it represents the sport's highest level in the United States. The NWSL was established in 2012 as a successor to Women's Professional Soccer (2007–2012), which was itself the successor to Women's United Soccer Association (2001–2003). The league began play in 2013 with eight teams, four of which were former members of Women's Professional Soccer.[1][2][3] With the addition of two expansion teams in Houston and Orlando and the loss of Boston Breakers, it now has nine teams throughout the United States.[4]

Since the league's inaugural 2013 season, three clubs have been crowned NWSL Champions and three clubs have claimed the NWSL Shield. The most recent shield-winners are the North Carolina Courage, who relocated to Cary, North Carolina during the 2016–2017 offseason from New York, where they were known as the Western New York Flash. The current champions are Portland Thorns FC, who claimed their second championship in 2017 after being the inaugural champions in 2013.

Competition format

The NWSL season runs from April–September with each team scheduled for 24 regular season games, 12 each of home and road.[5] At the end of the regular season, the team with the highest point total is awarded the regular season title. The four clubs with the most points from the regular season standings qualify for the NWSL playoffs, which consist of two semifinal single knockout matches (top seed hosts fourth; second hosts third), with the semifinal winners advancing to the championship final, played at a predetermined site.[6]



After Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) officially folded in April 2012, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) announced a roundtable for discussion of the future of women's professional soccer in the United States. The meeting, which included representatives from USSF, WPS teams, the W-League (ceased operation in 2015), and the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), was held in June and resulted in the planning of a new league set to launch in 2013 with 12–16 teams, taking from each of the three leagues. Compared to WPS, the teams would have a relatively low salary cap of $500,000,[7] though this was later lowered to $200,000.[8]

In November 2012, it was announced that there would be eight teams in a new women's professional soccer league that was yet to be named at the time of the announcement, subsidized by the USSF, the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and the Mexican Football Federation (FMF). The three federations would pay for the salaries of their national team players (24 from the US, 16 from Canada, and 12 to 16 from Mexico) to aid the teams in creating world-class rosters while staying under the salary cap. The players would be distributed evenly (as possible) among the eight teams in an allocation process. USSF would run the league offices and set the schedule.[9]

On November 29, 2012, it was announced that Cheryl Bailey had been named Executive Director in the new league. Bailey had previously served as general manager of the United States women's national soccer team from 2007 to 2011, which included leading the support staff for the U.S. team during the 2007 and 2011 FIFA Women's World Cups, as well as the 2008 Summer Olympics. During her tenure with the women's national team, she was in charge of all areas of administration including interfacing with clubs, team travel, payroll, and working with FIFA, CONCACAF, and other federations.[10]

Early years

The first NWSL game was held on April 13, 2013, as the Portland Thorns visited FC Kansas City, playing to a 1–1 draw in front of a crowd of 6,784 fans at Shawnee Mission District Stadium. Renae Cuellar scored the first goal in league history.[11][12] The 2013 season saw regular-season attendance average of 4,270, with a high of 17,619 on August 4 for Kansas City at Portland.[13][14]

The NWSL became the first U.S. professional women's soccer league to reach nine teams with the expansion of the MLS-backed Houston Dash in 2014; expansion interest, particularly from MLS teams, has continued.[15][16] The third season saw a shortened schedule and some early-season roster instability due to the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada, but the World Cup also provided exposure to the NWSL, which was credited with boosting attendance numbers across the league.[15]

The league also became the first professional women's league in the US to play more than three seasons when the league kicked off its fourth season in 2016.[17]


Current teams

Locations of National Women's Soccer League teams.

Nine NWSL teams are spread across the United States. Each club is allowed a minimum of 18 players on their roster, with a maximum of 20 players allowed at any time during the season.[18]

Originally, each team's roster includes up to three allocated American national team players, up to two allocated Mexico women's national team players, and up to two Canadian allocated national team players via the NWSL Player Allocation and subsequent trades.[19] In addition, each team has four spots available for international players.[20] The remaining roster spots must be filled by domestic players from the United States. Teams fill their rosters via a number of drafts and 4–6 discovery player signings.[18] Mexico no longer allocates players to the NWSL, having established its own women's league in 2017, and the number of allocated players and international players on each team are varying due to player trades.

National Women's Soccer League
Team Stadium Capacity City Founded Joined Head coach
Chicago Red Stars Toyota Park 20,000 Bridgeview, Illinois 2006 2013 Rory Dames
Houston Dash BBVA Compass Stadium 7,000[n 1][21] Houston, Texas 2013 2014 Vera Pauw
North Carolina Courage Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park 10,000 Cary, North Carolina 2009 2013 Paul Riley
Orlando Pride Orlando City Stadium 25,500 Orlando, Florida 2015 2016 Tom Sermanni
Portland Thorns FC Providence Park 21,144 Portland, Oregon 2012 2013 Mark Parsons
Seattle Reign FC UW Medicine Pitch at Memorial Stadium 6,088[n 2] Seattle, Washington 2012 2013 Vlatko Andonovski
Sky Blue FC Yurcak Field 5,000 Piscataway, New Jersey 2007 2013 Denise Reddy
Utah Royals FC Rio Tinto Stadium 20,213 Sandy, Utah 2017 2018 Laura Harvey
Washington Spirit Maureen Hendricks Field at Maryland SoccerPlex 4,000 Boyds, Maryland 2012 2013 Tom Torres (interim)
  1. BBVA Compass Stadium has a capacity of slightly over 22,039, but seating is restricted to 7,000 for Dash games.
  2. Memorial Stadium has a capacity of 12,000, but standard seating capacity for Reign games is 6,088.

Former teams

Membership timeline


Soon after launch, the league reportedly planned to expand to ten teams for 2014.[26] Potential candidates included groups not accepted as part of the original eight; groups from the Los Angeles area (joint effort from the LA Strikers and Pali Blues)[27] and from Hartford, Connecticut[28] were confirmed failed bids, as was one from the Seattle Sounders Women. There was speculation that the Vancouver Whitecaps Women could be logical candidates especially given the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada; however, the Whitecaps cancelled their women's program (except for one U-18 academy team) in December 2012.

During the inaugural season, there were rumors of expansion interest from MLS teams Toronto FC,[29] Vancouver Whitecaps FC,[30] and the New York Red Bulls,[31] as well as confirmed interest from WPSL side the Houston Aces.[32] NWSL team owners hinted that expansion for 2014 was not a question of "if" but "how many".[33][34] Despite this, it was announced during the playoffs that there would be no expansion for the league's second season,[35] though the Red Bulls and Sky Blue FC confirmed that they were in discussions for cooperation.[33][36]

During the first offseason, the Houston Dynamo added their name to the list of MLS teams interested in fielding a women's side, stating that they were "exploring the opportunity" of starting an NWSL side in 2014 or '15[37] and in 2013 they announced the Houston Dash with 2014 as their inaugural season.[38] By early December, NWSL approved a new team run by the Dynamo organization for expansion in 2014,[39] despite their earlier statement that there would be no expansion for the league's second season.

During the second offseason, expansion talk grew rapidly, with three established men's teams (Real Salt Lake of MLS, the Indy Eleven of NASL, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of USL Pro) expressing interest in joining NWSL, as well as an unattached group from Atlanta. There was also rumored or suggested interest from three men's teams in California, though none of those groups made official statements. Despite this interest, it was announced in late April 2015 that there would be no expansion for the 2016 season.

However, after the well-publicized success of the US Women's National soccer team, renewed interest in NWSL expansion caused reports from the owners' meeting that "a new team in 2016 has not been ruled out", with potential expansion news to be revealed within a month.[40] Commissioner Jeff Plush said that over a dozen interested groups had contacted the league in the post-World-Cup weeks; MLS team Orlando City SC was one of the first newly interested groups made public.[41][42][43] On October 20, 2015, it was announced that Orlando would be hosting the 10th NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, due to start the 2016 season.[44] At that announcement, the Pride announced that they had hired former U.S. National Women's Team coach Tom Sermanni.

On November 16, 2017, it was announced that Real Salt Lake would expand into the NWSL beginning in the 2018 season. The Salt Lake City team, shortly thereafter unveiled as Utah Royals FC, is officially considered a new franchise that replaced FC Kansas City. That team, partnered with but not owned by Sporting Kansas City, was seen by media as an unintended victim of issues that Sporting was facing with its United Soccer League reserve team, Swope Park Rangers.[45]


Stadiums and attendance

As of the current 2018 season, the NWSL uses nine stadiums. The highest attendance in the league's history occurred on April 23, 2016 at the Orlando Citrus Bowl when 23,403 people watched the Orlando Pride defeat the Houston Dash 3–1 in a regular season home match.[46] Other than this match, the top attendances in the league have occurred at Providence Park for home games of Portland Thorns FC.

Squad formation and salaries

In each season, teams receive a salary cap that limits their total spending on players. The salaries of allocated players from the United States, Canadian, and (formerly) Mexican national teams are paid by their respective federations instead of their NWSL clubs, and do not count against their club's salary cap.[47]

Non-allocated players, including international players, also have minimum and maximum salary limits. Players allocated by the US or Canadian federations are also exempt from these limits. The same applied to allocated Mexican players, but the arrangement between the Mexican federation and the NWSL ended when Mexico established its own women's league in 2017.[48][49][50]

Year Team cap Unallocated player salary limits
Minimum Maximum
All currency amounts are in USD

Players' association

Active non-allocated players, including unpaid amateur players, announced their formation of a players' association on May 15, 2017, as the first step toward forming a union. Membership is limited to non-allocated players because allocated players are members of their own federation-affiliated labor organizations and negotiate contracts covering NWSL play with their respective national federations instead of the league or clubs.[51][52][53] The association is led by civil rights attorney and former WPS players' union organizer Meghann Burke.[54]

League championships

As of the end of the 2017, three clubs have been crowned NWSL Champions and four clubs have claimed the NWSL Shield.

NWSL Major Trophy Winners
Season NWSL Champions
Play-off winners
NWSL Shield
Regular season winners
2013 Portland Thorns FC Western New York Flash
2014 FC Kansas City Seattle Reign FC
2015 FC Kansas City Seattle Reign FC
2016 Western New York Flash Portland Thorns FC
2017 Portland Thorns FC North Carolina Courage
2018 TBD North Carolina Courage


During the 2013–2016 seasons, the majority of league games were available for viewing via YouTube or via individual team's websites.[55] Of the eight teams in the league during the inaugural season, the Boston Breakers were the only team that charged a fee for access to their broadcasts.[56]


On April 18, 2013, NWSL signed a one-year agreement with Fox Sports to televise six regular season games, the semifinal, and championship games on Fox Sports 2.[57]


On May 28, 2014, the NWSL signed a one-year agreement with ESPN to televise nine games of the 2014 NWSL season. The matches included three regular season and three playoff matches on ESPN2, as well as 3 regular season games live-streamed on ESPN3.[58]


On June 30, 2015, the NWSL announced a one-year agreement with Fox Sports once more to cover ten matches. Three regular season and three playoff matches were televised on FS1, and four live-streamed on Fox Sports Go.[59] The agreement was extended into 2016 under another one-year contract, covering three regular season matches and the three playoff matches, once again on FS1.[60]


On February 2, 2017, the NWSL announced a three-year agreement with A&E Networks, in which Lifetime broadcasts 22 regular-season matches as the NWSL Game of the Week at 4 p.m. Eastern on Saturday afternoons, as well as three post-season matches. This marked the first time that the NWSL had a weekly broadcast window throughout the entire season. Players also wear a sleeve patch of the network's logo on their uniforms. As part of the deal, A&E Networks also purchased a 25% equity stake in the NWSL, were granted two seats on the league's board, and formed a joint venture with the league known as NWSL Media to oversee the league's marketing and broadcast rights. This deal marked the first time Lifetime had broadcast sports since the WNBA in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[61][62][63][64][65] Lifetime also streams the game of the week in the United States via its website, and internationally in the NWSL website and iOS app. The remaining games are streamed exclusively by go90 in the United States as part of a paid multi-year sponsorship agreement, and through the NWSL website internationally.[61]

The quality of the streams through go90 faced criticism, with sportswriters, users, as well as players and team staff, criticizing the service for its inconsistent quality, and arguing that the NWSL's growth could be harmed by go90's relative lack of reach and prominence when compared to YouTube.[66][67] The Equalizer noted that the app was prone to crashing, did not have the same wide device support as YouTube,[68] and that the telecasts themselves suffered from their own technical problems (such as poor camera angles and glitches with graphics), but that the streams were good when they worked.[69] On May 19, 2017, the league announced that they would additionally stream games on the NWSL website and app in the U.S. until the technical issues with go90 were rectified.[70]

After Houston Dash player Rachel Daly collapsed on the pitch after a match in Houston, on May 27 – where the heat index was reportedly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit – she was carried off on a stretcher and hospitalized for heat illness. League operations director Amanda Duffy subsequently announced that the NWSL Game of the Week matches, many of which were slated for the hottest parts of the day in humid cities such as Houston, Orlando, and Cary, North Carolina, would be rescheduled to allow for longer hydration breaks. Some Game of the Week matches changed to other venues, and teams not scheduled for television were granted more flexibility in rescheduling kickoffs for player safety. The league also adopted new procedures for addressing heat and rescheduling matches.[71][72]

On June 6, 2018, it was announced that six Game of the Week matches through the remainder of the season would move to evening kickoffs and air on ESPNews (which is owned by a sister venture to A&E Networks), in an effort to ensure the safety of players, as well as improve attendance.[73]


Statistics below are for all-time regular season leaders. Bold indicates active NWSL players.

Top scorers

NWSL All-Time Leading Goalscorers
Regular Season Only as of August 17, 2018
Rank Player Goals Games References
1 Samantha Kerr 55 94 [74][75]
2 Jessica McDonald 41 118 [76][77]
3 Christine Sinclair 40 108 [78][78]
4 Christen Press 37 69 [79][80][79]
5 Megan Rapinoe 34 69 [81]
Lynn Williams 34 75 [82][83]
7 Allie Long 33 118 [84][85]
8 Kim Little 32 63 [86][87]
Alex Morgan 32 80 [88]
10 Carli Lloyd 30 77 [89]
NWSL All-Time Playoff Leading Goalscorers
Last updated October 14, 2017
Bold indicates active player
Rank Player Goals
1 Amy Rodriguez 6
2 Megan Rapinoe 3
Christine Sinclair 3
Lynn Williams 3
5 Crystal Dunn 2
Tobin Heath 2
Lindsey Horan 2
Carli Lloyd 2
Samantha Mewis 2
Erika Tymrak 2

NWSL awards

Throughout the season, the league awards Player of the Week and Player of the Month awards to individual players, which are voted on by the media.[90][91] The league presents six annual awards for outstanding achievements voted on by owners, general managers, coaches, players and the media:[92]

  1. Golden Boot
  2. Rookie of the Year
  3. Goalkeeper of the Year
  4. Defender of the Year
  5. Coach of the Year
  6. Most Valuable Player (MVP)

In addition, the league names a NWSL Best XI team and NWSL Second XI team which are voted on by journalists, club officials and NWSL players.[93]

NWSL commissioners

Name Years
Cheryl Bailey 2012–2014[94]
Jeff Plush 2015–2017[95][96]
Vacant 2017–

The league has operated without a full-time commissioner since Jeff Plush resigned on March 2, 2017. Amanda Duffy, hired in December 2016 as the league's managing director of operations, has served as the public face of league management since Plush's resignation, and the position of commissioner has remained vacant.[97]

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