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NWSL unveils 2021 key dates and Covid-19 safety protocols

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Year will start with Challenge Cup in home markets.

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

With preseason starting in five days, key dates for the 2021 NWSL season were announced today, along with revised Covid-19 safety and testing protocols and policies (PDF link), including guidance for players who might want to opt out of all or part of the season. Notably, the medical opt-out rules are more strict this year and are modeled after the WNBA’s policies for their 2020 bubble, requiring a team physician to review whether a player or someone in their household is at high risk of serious Covid-19-related illness. The league has also codified a disciplinary process for Covid-19 safety protocol infractions during, and has established a 3-day quarantine for players coming back to club teams from approved national team bubbles.

The year will start with a second edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup, with the first games for that tournament kicking off on April 9. This year’s games will be played in home markets, similar to the Fall Series, rather than at a central location. The first games of the Challenge Cup will be taking place during a FIFA international window, meaning that teams will likely be without most of their national team players.

Following the Challenge Cup, a 24-game regular season will commence on May 15. Unlike prior years with international tournaments, the league will not take a break for the 2021 Olympic Games. The regular season will finish on Oct. 30, with a six-team playoff to follow. To facilitate the expanded playoffs, the top two seeds will receive a first-round bye. The season will conclude with the NWSL Championship game on Nov. 20, at a venue to be announced.

Finally, there will be a two-team expansion draft on Dec. 16, with Angel City FC and Sacramento selecting players to build their rosters before joining the league in 2022.

The format and schedule of the Challenge Cup, regular season and playoffs will be announced at a later date. Similarly, details about if and when fans will be allowed to attend matches are still to be determined and will likely shift as the year progresses.