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NWSL in 2019: A competitive league enters a World Cup year

September 4, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; Team USA forward Tobin Heath (17) is congratulated after scoring a goal against Chile goalkeeper Christiane Endler (1) during the first half in an international friendly soccer match at Avaya Stadium. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

The National Women’s Soccer League kicks off its eighth season Saturday with this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup as a prominent backdrop.

While the NWSL regular season runs from April to October, much attention will be paid to players in the lead-up to the tournament, which starts in France June 7. Outside the World Cup, the 2019 NWSL season is shaping up to be one of the most competitive yet. Nine teams will vie for hardware this season, which includes a few key storylines to follow.

Here are some of the biggest:

Will the North Carolina Courage run continue?

For the last two years, the NWSL’s top dog has resided in Cary, N.C.

The North Carolina Courage are the reigning league champions and two-time Shield winners. Strictly speaking, the club’s run started well before its inaugural 2017 season. The Courage are the rebranded and relocated Western New York Flash, which also won the 2016 NWSL title with many of the same faces.

North Carolina had a dominant 2018, boasting a 17-1-6 record. It scored the most goals in the league while conceding the fewest, and finished the campaign 15 points ahead of the more-than-competent Portland Thorns, who finished second.

While the Courage ran away with the Shield, there was more parity between Portland and the Seattle Reign, Chicago Red Stars and Utah Royals, who finished third through fifth, respectively, in the rankings and were all within seven points of each other by the end of 2018.

It would be remarkable to see North Carolina dominate in a similar way this season, especially since the quartet of teams right behind has plenty of top talent.

All eyes on the World Cup

NWSL will send dozens of players across many nationalities to compete in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which runs through June and the first week of July.

The brunt of the league’s players, though, will compete with the United States women’s national team.

Players will leave their respective teams in May for World Cup camp, though league play will continue until June 2, at which point the NWSL breaks until June 15.

The U.S. will play three friendlies on American soil before kicking off its World Cup campaign against Thailand on June 11 in Reims, France. The first friendly is May 12 against South Africa in Santa Clara, Calif; the second is May 16 against New Zealand in St. Louis, Mo.; the third is May 26 against Mexico in Harrison, NJ.

The U.S. has had a bumpy road in the lead-up to defending its 2015 world champion title. A 6-0 rout of Belgium April 7 helped ease tensions about the Americans’ form and coaching, which has come under question in recent months, particularly after the U.S. failed to win the SheBelieves Cup.

However, NWSL’s reputation is on the line at the World Cup – and not just with the USWNT. Strong performances by NWSL players – regardless of the nation they represent – will ultimately reflect on league’s quality.

New beginning for Sky Blue FC

Sky Blue FC opens the season Saturday against the Washington Spirit looking for a win – and a chance to turn the page.

The latter appears to be coming together. President and general manager Tony Novo is out and the team’s former vice president, Alyse LaHue, has taken over his role on an interim basis. Novo faced scrutiny after defending club executives, who appeared to turn a blind-eye to the substandard working conditions Sky Blue players dealt with last season.

In fact, the situation was so bad, Sky Blue’s top draft pick – New Jersey native Hallie Mace – refused to sign with the team and instead sign a contract with Melbourne FC in Australia (she has since signed with Sweden’s FC Rosengard).

Sky Blue was pretty much the anti-North Carolina last year with a bottom-dwelling 1-17-6 record. While the team’s attack was only the second-weakest in the league, its defense was far and away the worst: Sky Blue conceded 52 goals.

Twenty years later, American women’s soccer is at inflection point

The 1999 world champion USWNT and its players are widely seen as pioneers and trailblazers, and it’s been almost 20 years since their iconic shootout victory over China in the World Cup final in Pasadena, Calif., that helped put a face on women’s issues and gender equality.

Off the field, this current crop of players is fighting many of the same battles.

In March, the women’s national team filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking equal pay to the senior men’s national team. The federation and the players have been in discussions since, but the level of progress has been questionable at best– depending on who you ask, that is.

That the U.S. women’s national team is still a worldwide power on the field 20 years later is a sign of how far soccer has come in America.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for gender equity.

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