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NWSL Challenge Cup will return for 2021, along with a full regular season

Expanded playoffs also highlight the league’s ninth season

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship - Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

We’re still a ways out from the start of the 2021 NWSL season and there remains significant uncertainty surrounding the timing of potential coronavirus vaccines and how that might affect schedules and logistics, but the league has already made some major announcements about the format of their ninth season. Most significantly, the Challenge Cup will return to start the year, followed by a full 24-game regular season and expanded playoffs.

“Building on what we were able to safely accomplish in 2020, we’re expanding the opportunities for our athletes and teams to thrive, and for our sponsors and partners to invest in our continued growth,” said NWSL Director of Operations and Player Affairs Liz Dalton in a league release.

Training camps will open on February 1, with the first competition starting in mid-April with the Challenge Cup. The location of that event will likely not be determined until much closer to the start of the season, with guidance from the NWSL Medical Taskforce and local health authorities determining whether it will take place in a bubble like the 2020 edition, in local team markets, or in some combination of the two.

After the Challenge Cup wraps up, a 24-game regular season will kick off in mid-May. In our conversation with OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore last week, he said that based on the current Covid vaccine data, he was “cautiously optimistic that sometime around Q2 [April-June, 2021] we’ll start to see fans in stadiums in this market.”

Finally, the NWSL playoffs will take place in November 2021. With the addition of Louisville to the league, the playoffs will be expanded to six teams for the first time. The top two seeds will receive a bye in the first round, and the NWSL Championship game is anticipated to take place on the weekend of November 20.