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2023 NWSL schedule released: Actually, there’s a lot to like

From simultaneous kickoffs to end the regular season, to relegating the Challenge Cup to the World Cup window, the league did what it could within the confines of a convoluted calendar

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 National Women’s Soccer League schedule was released on Wednesday, 45 days before the league’s first kick on March 25. The entire schedule can be viewed and filtered by team on the league’s website. Here, we bring you the highlights and analysis:

Great: Finally, Decision Day

This will feel like foreign territory for NWSL fans, but there are plenty of things to like about this schedule.

Firstly, the regular season ends for all 12 teams on Oct. 15, with simultaneous kickoffs at 5p.m. ET. This is a big deal and important for creating a meaningful event on the eve of the playoffs.

Last season highlighted how much self-harm poor scheduling had on the league’s trademark parity. What could have been a single, final day to the regular season that featured the NWSL Shield, final playoff berth and all six playoff seeds changing hands by the minute, was instead spread out over three days and made the single, final game on a Sunday cut-and-dry based on a result two days earlier.

In 2023, we have simultaneous kickoffs to end the regular season. Angel City and San Diego will host games just a hundred miles from each other, perhaps looking to knock each other out of the playoffs or down in the playoff seeding. Similar scenes could play out on the East Coast, with NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit hosting games.

Last season was an extreme level of parity even for a league known to be competitive top to bottom, so Oct. 15 might not play out with as much drama as a Decision Day could have last year, but this is a start and a standard that needs to be kept going forward.

Slightly improved: World Cup breaks

For now, we can give credit for progress, but there is more work to be done. In 2015 and 2019, the NWSL took one measly weekend off for each World Cup and called it a “break.” The result was a top league, worldwide, was relegated to relative irrelevance for several weeks as global attention focused on the World Cup. This time around, the NWSL will take two breaks.

The first comes the weekend of July 15 (regular season games on July 9, then no games until the Challenge Cup resumes on July 21) and the weekend of August 12 (Challenge Cup games until August 6, then the regular season resumes on August 18).

Curiously, that first break comes before the World Cup actually begins and the second break comes just after the World Cup group stage ends, with regular-season play resuming on the weekend of the World Cup final. The match will kick off at 8 p.m. local time in Sydney on August 20, which is 6 a.m. ET in the United States.

On why the league took its first “break” before the World Cup actually starts, a league spokesperson provided the following statement:

“There is a type 1 FIFA window that begins on July 10 so national team players will be out of market by then and not able to participate in matches that week. Therefore, we took the break early to prevent any disruptions to the three weeks of Challenge Cup games.”

On why the second World Cup break comes before the final stages and puts the league’s games in contest with the World Cup final:

“We positioned the break within the World Cup footprint following group play because we anticipate a number of international players will have returned to their respective NWSL teams to participate in games that weekend. Additionally, with the time difference we assumed we would not be competing with the World Cup final. We were hoping to ride the momentum of the World Cup excitement with our games that weekend.”

Still, international players will miss a large chunk of the season. All international players will be released for the World Cup on June 26, two weeks before the actual FIFA window, The Equalizer first reported last week. This is a problem that is not going away in future years, and all parties acknowledge they need to find solutions, potentially even drastic ones.

The July 10-16 break will serve as the CBA-mandated, seven-day vacation period for players that must come between June 1 and Sept. 1 each season.

Smart: Challenge Cup during the World Cup

Look, no league should be playing through the World Cup. But there is a bigger issue at play here with the NWSL calendar and its clash with the global calendar, plus the split feelings of board members (owners) and business elements at play to going dark for a month. Maybe that will change for real by the (more abbreviated) 2024 Olympics, or the 2027 Women’s World Cup (it will have to if that ends up in the U.S.).

The Challenge Cup is still a fledgling competition with unclear meaning beyond some decent financial perks, so tossing that into the bulk of the World Cup window is a smart way to mitigate interruption to the regular season without going totally dark as a league. I’d also argue that it’s a concession that the Challenge Cup is not all that important.

Monitoring the situation: October congestion

After the Oct. 15 Decision Day, the league will play its first-round playoff games on Oct. 22, one day before the FIFA international window opens. That window is Oct. 23-31. The NWSL semifinals are then scheduled for Nov. 4, followed by the NWSL Championship on Nov. 11.

Even if the United States women’s national team plays home games in that window, dozens of other internaitonal players in the league face a significant workload during those few weeks.

It’s a different version of the same challenge faced last year, when the league scheduled the regular season to end right before a FIFA window and then the playoffs started with the first round directly after international play. The window after that is Nov. 27-Dec. 5, so they could have built in an extra week off in the playoffs and still met the CBA requirements for when the season needs to end.

Great: 22-game schedule, minimal midweek games

Let’s just reiterate this to be clear: a balanced regular-season schedule is the right thing to do and it needs to stay that way going forward, as the league expands to 14 teams and then 16 teams. Once again, with 12 teams this year, it means a 22-game schedule, with each team playing the other 11 squads once at home and once away.

Dear NWSL Board of Governors: Do not give into the temptation to create conferences with a league of 14 or 16 teams. I promise you, two regular-season games per year against your rivals is a great number. Remember the early years of the league when those rivalry games got diluted? You’ll still get those add-on games through the Challenge Cup. Repeat after me: Single table, home and away. Now and for a long time.

The NWSL also previously promised minimal midweek regular-season games in 2023 and, indeed, there’s only one regular-season match on the entire schedule that does no appear on a Friday night, Saturday or Sunday: a Thursday, Sept. 21 game in Los Angeles between Angel City and the Orlando Pride. There are plenty of Wednesday games, but they are all for the Challenge Cup.

The league will also break for the April FIFA window.

Bad: Another long wait for the schedule

The CBA only requires the schedule to be released two weeks prior to first kick, which is wild to think about. Still, by almost all standards, the NWSL schedule was once again unacceptably late to reach the public.

I write that as someone intimately aware of the nuanced challenges this league and its various clubs face. The bottom line is, we’re on roughly the same timeline as last year, and it is not good enough. Commissioner Jessica Berman admitted as much in a tweet this week.

Generalizations are always dangerous, but there is a fair argument that the NWSL’s greatest roadblock for growth historically has been organizational dysfunction and a lack of long-term planning. Many topics, including the schedule, trace back to planning issues.

This is also a league that increasingly wants to be big-time. There are two sides to that: First, it will need to operate as a major league and meet the various expectations that come with the title. The layers to that are plentiful: getting the schedule out sooner, in plain terms, but also eliminating the friction points within the process, like teams renting out stadiums where they are deprioritized by MLS teams or a concert promoter.

Also, the league is not yet big-time enough to leave behind the core audience that propped it up and supported it in the lean years. I type this as one of only a few full-time journalists covering the league nationally: 99% of the regular media coverage the NWSL still receives comes from some level of self-funded or independent creators. There’s an obvious thirst to make regular news in bigger publications, but without day-to-day efforts of the working-class media, there is not sustainable NWSL coverage. They — we — need to be able to plan further in advance (next up: announce the final location soon to plan travel on tight budgets).

If nobody wants to sympathize with media, that’s fine. The bigger point is this: the same reality exists for the entire core of the league’s fans nationally. Whether they want to book a flight to a big game or just know if they can buy season tickets or make plans for the summer, they can’t do it without a timely schedule. That will remain a problem. The NWSL’s target for the 2024 schedule needs to be early December 2023, to beat the holidays. If that feels ambitious… good.


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