The National Women's Soccer League embarks on its 11th season this weekend with players looking to capitalize on the excitement building ahead of the Women's World Cup while also trying to move on from the turbulence of the last two seasons.
"It's a big year of women's soccer with the World Cup and a really exciting NWSL schedule and NWSL teams this year, so hopefully it stays that way," OL Reign defender Alana Cook said. "And hopefully the narrative can just be about that."
The pro women's league has been rocked for the past two seasons by a series of allegations of misconduct and abuse by coaches. The fallout has been a reckoning for soccer in the United States, with U.S. Soccer and the NWSL both having launched investigations into the scandals.
The NWSL has put several programs in place to prevent abuse, including a reporting system and the professionalization of the league's human resource department, which visited every team in the preseason. All 12 teams must designate a player safety officer.
Commissioner Jessica Berman said she's spoken with players who say they're exhausted from having to address the misconduct -- they're ready to put the focus on the soccer. And it's a big year for the game because of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand starting on July 20.
"I think it's their hope that we at the league and through ownership and management can really take on the burden and work behind the scenes to offer the playing environment that meets the standard that certainly I've committed to, which is a place that makes the players proud to play," Berman said.
The Portland Thorns are the defending NWSL champions, having won their third league title with a 2-0 victory over the Kansas City Current last year.
Portland is also among the favorites this season because of a loaded roster that includes national team players like Sophia Smith, Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn. Smith was the NWSL's Most Valuable Player and also the title game MVP.
"This is a special group. It's hard to put a word on what it is. I think it's the character of all the players. We all love each other, we're close and we trust each other," Smith said. "It's a similar group coming back from last year so we know what it takes. And the new players, we've made clear what it takes. It's going to take all of us and it's going to take a lot of work but it's also an exciting and fun process."
RIDING THE WAVE
The San Diego Wave became the first expansion team to make the playoffs last season, paced by forward Alex Morgan with a league-leading 16 goals.
The Wave also set an NWSL record for attendance at a standalone match when the club drew a sellout crowd of 32,000 to Snapdragon Stadium for a match against rival Angel City in September.
"This team and club has high hopes and has just set the bar and we want to continue to do that with the home opener attendance record, and just continue on that run of of breaking records," Morgan said.
The NWSL this month announced its 13th team, a reboot of the Utah Royals.
The first Royals team played from 2018-20 but folded when owner Dell Loy Hansen announced he was selling the Royals and Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake amid scandal. That Royals then became the Kansas City Current.
As part of the deal to buy RSL, the new owners had rights for an NWSL expansion team. The new Royals will join the league next season.
The league is expected to announce another expansion club in the San Francisco Bay Area for 2024, while another franchise is expected to be awarded to Boston in the future.