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The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is a professional women's soccer league at the top of the United States league system. It is owned by the teams and, until 2020, was under a management contract with the United States Soccer Federation.

The NWSL was established in 2012 as the successor to Women's Professional Soccer (WPS; 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 WPS (Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC, and Western New York Flash). As of 2022, it has 12 teams across the United States.

As of May 7, 2022, five teams have been crowned NWSL Champions, awarded to the playoff winner; four teams have claimed the NWSL Shield, awarded to the team in first place at the end of the regular season; and three teams have been champions of the NWSL Challenge Cup, an annual league cup tournament that began in 2020. The current (2022) NWSL champions are the Portland Thorns FC, and the current shield winners (2022) are Seattle-based team OL Reign. The current (2022) Challenge Cup champions are the North Carolina Courage.



After Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) officially folded in April 2012, the United States Soccer Federation (US Soccer) announced a roundtable for discussion of the future of women's professional soccer in the United States. The meeting, which included representatives from US Soccer, WPS teams, the W-League (ceased operation in 2015), and the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), was held in June. By November, after much discussion, owners from the Chicago Red Stars, Boston Breakers and US Soccer recruited an additional six teams. Compared to WPS, the teams would intentionally operate at a lower cost structure and manage growth in a sustainable way.

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, with national team players subsidized by US Soccer, 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. The teams would own the league, and the league would contract US Soccer to manage league operations. After the 2020 season, the league terminated its management contract with US Soccer.

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.

Nike, Inc. was selected as league sponsor, providing apparel to all teams as well as the game ball.

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. 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.

The NWSL became the first U.S. professional women's soccer league to reach nine teams with the addition of Houston Dash, backed by Major League Soccer (MLS) team Houston Dynamo, in 2014; expansion interest, particularly from MLS and USL teams, has continued. 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.

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.

Response to COVID-19 pandemic

The 2020 season was initially postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and later canceled. Instead the league played the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, a special competition hosted in the Salt Lake City region with no spectators. The cup began in late June, making the NWSL the first major U.S. team sports league to return to play. The league was the recipient of a federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which it used to compensate players before the competition was able to begin. Later that year the league also played the NWSL Fall Series, a set of 18 games between teams within geographically restricted regions.