The National Women's Soccer League embarks this weekend on its milestone 10th season with two new teams, a new commissioner and the determination to move on and grow after a series of scandals.
Angel City FC, with its star-studded ownership group, and the San Diego Wave, with former U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis serving as the team's first president, join the league this season and bring it to 12 teams.
Jessica Berman, a former executive for the NHL and the National Lacrosse League, was named commissioner of the league in March.
Berman believes the league is healthy as it moves into the next decade — and one of the indicators is the expansion.
“But there’s also the number of inbounds that I’ve received personally since the announcement on March 9, from prospective investors who want an expansion team, from brands who want to partner and invest in the NWSL in the sponsorship space, to third-party media support wanting to help to amplify the messages of growth for the league,” Berman said. “There’s just an immense amount of what feels to me like pent-up demand for this league to be able to prove its value moving forward and it has me very enthusiastic about the future.”
Lisa Baird stepped down as commissioner last October after allegations of sexual harassment and coercion were brought against one of the league’s most prominent coaches, North Carolina's Paul Riley.
Riley resigned and has denied the allegations. He was among five league coaches who either were dismissed or stepped down amid claims of misconduct. They included Louisville's Christy Holly, the Reign's Farid Benstiti, Chicago's Rory Dames and the Washington Spirit's Richie Burke.
Then, less than a week before Friday's regular-season opener, Houston Dash coach James Clarkson was suspended pending results of league and team investigations after complaints of discrimination and harassment.
Berman said that while she is disappointed the NWSL continues to deal with such allegations, Clarkson's suspension shows the systems put in place to protect players are working.
Berman officially took office April 20, so she's still new to the job.
“There’s a lot I have to learn and a lot I want to do in a very short period of time and so figuring out our priorities and sequencing that plan is really, for me, probably is going to be the most challenging thing, and really setting realistic expectations for both myself and the board about what we can accomplish in the short, medium and long term,” she said.
The league's preseason Challenge Cup tournament — named in a nod to the event held in a bubble in Utah in 2020, when sports were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic — started in mid-March and is still ongoing. The format of the tournament is a bit odd because it stretches into the regular season.
The semifinals are set for next Wednesday with the Reign playing the Washington Spirit and Kansas City hosting the Courage. The final will take place on May 7.
Angel City made a splash with a founding ownership group that included celebs Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, tennis star Venus Williams and soccer legend Mia Hamm. The club signed national team forward Christen Press as its first player.
Angel City will play in the league's season opener, hosting North Carolina at Banc of California stadium in Los Angeles on Friday night.
WAVES ROLLING IN
The San Diego Wave roll into the league with two notable names: former U.S. women's national team coach Jill Ellis, who is the club's first president, and coach Casey Stoney, the former English national team defender and coach for Manchester United's women's team.
The Wave's big signing was forward Alex Morgan, but the team also has fellow national team player Abby Dahlkemper.
The Wave open the season on Sunday night in Houston against the Dash.
The NWSL Board of Governors approved its landmark collective bargaining agreement with the players at the start of February, just as preseason training camps opened. The contract is a first for women’s professional soccer in the United States.
The CBA included a significant boost to the league’s minimum salary and step-ladder increases for players above the minimum, as well as other benefits, and runs through the 2026 season.
Provisions in the agreement also helped pave the way for the Washington Spirit to sign Trinity Rodman to the league's biggest-ever contract, worth an estimated $1.1 million over four years. Rodman, the daughter of NBA great Dennis Rodman, won NWSL Rookie of the Year honors last season.
Many of the NWSL's players will be in and out of their teams this season as their countries prepare for the 2023 World Cup, to be cohosted by Australia and New Zealand. The defending champion U.S. national team will take part in the CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico this summer, which serves as the region's qualification tournament for the World Cup.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press