The NWSL and Its 2020 Challenges

Despite what some other leagues think, the NWSL was the first professional sports league in the United States to make a return to playing with zero COVID-19 cases.

The NWSL is making moves. And by that, I mean that some players are moving across the pond.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

After a successful NWSL Challenge Cup tournament, the league is facing new challenges. With no future game dates set at the time, a few players have chosen to compete with European clubs in order to keep their skills sharp for the upcoming Olympic year.

One of the first NSWL and US Women’s National Team players to skip across the pond this season was North Carolina Courage’s Sam Mewis. Mewis looks to bring her attacking mindset, which has brought her 18 goals and 6 assists with the USWNT, to Manchester City, who plays in Great Britain’s premier women’s soccer league, the FA Women’s Super League. Rose Lavelle, a breakout star from last summer’s World Cup team, was next to follow and joined her USWNT teammate and good friend Mewis with Manchester City. She also stated that she will be looking to add a few more raincoats to her wardrobe.

Both players have stated that they had planned to play abroad at some point, but never knew when that time would be.

Orlando Pride’s recently acquired Emily Sonnett has been loaded out to the Swedish club Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC through November. Another Pride player, also recently acquired, Jade Moore and Ali Riley have been placed on loan to European teams. It is also rumored that USWNT and NSWL superstars Christen Press and Tobin Heath are in negotiations to sign with Manchester United.

The USWNT players that have signed and are rumored to be signing with European teams are allocated players of the U.S. Soccer Federation or the Canadian Soccer Association. This means that such players have their salaries paid in full for an entire season, regardless of what club they play for. Their contracts are not held by their NWSL teams but by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).

They are essentially global free agents. But, there are plenty of catches.

While money is funneled into the European teams from sponsors and their club’s respective men’s teams, budgets are tight in the midst of COVID-19. Plus, there are restrictions, and now lack of restrictions, within the USSF’s player CBA. In a typical year, up to four players can leave the NWSL to join other teams. In a typical cycle year, a year that holds a World Cup or Olympics, zero salary players are allowed to leave their predetermined USWNT or NWSL duties. But 2020 has been anything but typical.

Since there was no NWSL season and only a tournament-formatted event, there is no limit to how many allocated players can play outside of their designated teams and the US while still receiving their salaries. Thus, players are only being loaned out for the fall and winter months, returning to their USWNT and NWSL duties in the first months of the new year.


The NWSL announced on Tuesday, August 25, that a ‘Fall Series’ will take place throughout September and October of 2020. The nine teams of the league will be grouped into regional pods and will play in a round robin format. This could halt further movement of players to European leagues.

If you tuned into the NWSL Challenge Cup and the latest NWSL news as a seasoned fan or a rookie, here are some things to know about the league and its predecessors.

Women’s Professional Soccer History in the US

The NWSL was created in the winter of 2012. Before the league was founded, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was the world’s first women’s soccer league that labeled its players, and paid them, as professionals. The league began in 2000 and unfortunately folded after only three seasons.

When it started, its future looked bright. It was created by TV moguls looking to boost their profits. The first match of the league was shown by TNT and was played in front of nearly 35,000 fans. It seemed to be ahead of its time, paying its ‘founding players’, the members of the World Cup ‘99 team, more than $80,000 per season. But the league blew through money too quickly and was forced to fold in 2003 ahead of the World Cup.

The Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league attempted to revive women’s soccer in the United States after being established in 2007. The league began play in 2009 with a total of seven teams, but it was forced to fold after only three seasons due to a lack of investment in the league. Players were left without a league in an Olympic year.

Then came the NWSL in 2012. For eight seasons, the league has housed players from national teams around the globe. It is now one of the highest level women’s soccer leagues in the world.

Due to COVID-19, the NWSL was not able to hold the 2020 regular season, but instead held a 23-game tournament style cup. All nine teams were set to compete in the tournament which began on June 26 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. However, with only days to go, the Orlando Pride were forced to withdraw due to positive coronavirus tests among players and team personnel.

Throughout the month-long tournament, the NWSL teams experienced zero positive COVID-19 tests in their Utah bubble. With sights set on the future, the league will grow from nine teams to 12 within the next two years. The NWSL expansion to Louisville was announced in 2019, with the Los Angeles and Sacramento expansions coming in the wake of the Challenge Cup.

(Cover Photo: Illustration by Rachel Breton)

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