The 2023 NWSL season kicks off on Saturday, and although OL Reign and the NWSL might look relatively unchanged on the surface, there are a lot of stories to catch up on from the off-season for both club and league to help prepare you for first kick.
The Reign roster stayed mostly intact
When you win the NWSL Shield, you’re probably doing something right in terms of roster construction. OL Reign made very few moves to rock the boat this off-season. They waived defender Sinclaire Miramontez (who subsequently announced her retirement) and forward Jodi Ulkekul, both of whom were primarily depth players in 2022. Tobin Heath also departed in free agency after making five appearances for the team last season; she remains without a club but all indications are that her time with OL Reign is over.
Visualizing offseason #NWSL player movement ahead of the 2023 season. #ReignSupreme retained the most players. Thickness of the circles and lines represents the number of players retained, transferred between teams, or entering/exiting the league. pic.twitter.com/qonYawsYeH— Alison Gale (@agale137) March 21, 2023
The club added several exciting names to bolster the squad — they acquired forward Elyse Bennett and a draft pick from KC Current in exchange for allocation money, defender Emily Sonnett from the Washington Spirit in exchange for a 2024 first round draft pick, and midfielder Luany from Grêmio of the Brasileirão Feminino for an unspecified fee. Bennett and Sonnett featured extensively in the team’s preseason matches, while Luany is still awaiting a visa before joining the club.
Other key off-season moves included retaining free agents Lauren Barnes, Megan Rapinoe, and Nikki Stanton, and signing Sam Hiatt and Quinn to new contracts. Alyssa Malonson and Ryanne Brown have also rejoined the Reign following their loans last season to FC Nordsjælland of the Danish Elitedivisionen; they will likely be important contributors when the team has players away on international duty.
The Reign coaching and front office staff did not
OL Reign lost a big part of their history this off-season when Assistant Coach Sam Laity was tapped by the Houston Dash to become their new head coach. Laity had been with the team from day one, working under all three head coaches in the club’s history. He performed a lot of important tasks for the club, helping manage the team’s physical load and utilization in the early years when there were few support staff, and later taking on a role primarily working with the forwards, helping to develop players like Bethany Balcer. He also helped scout for the draft before the club had a dedicated general manager.
In Laity’s stead, the club has brought on two new assistant coaches, Scott Parkinson and Kate Norton. Parkinson has prior experience working with Laura Harvey — he was her primary assistant in Utah, and he also has head coaching experience both at Utah and with Gotham FC. Players speak highly of both his personality and coaching style, noting that he’s very effusive both with praise and with constructive criticism in identifying areas to focus on in training.
Norton comes to the club from PacNW and fills a growing need for additional coaching support as the overall technical and analytical staff has grown larger. As Harvey noted when discussing her hire, Norton “adds another layer to the group of staff that we have. Over the years, this job has become bigger and bigger with the amount of resources that we have access to — video, data, everything that we can get. From a staff perspective, it means there’s more and more work that you can do.”
One other big departure from OL Reign is General Manager Nick Perera, who will be leaving the team at the end of March to pursue new opportunities. Perera joined the team a year ago and helped craft this year’s roster through the aforementioned trades and signings. The team is currently in the process of searching for his replacement.
The Challenge Cup will be played in-season this year
Instead of the schedule used the past two seasons, where teams played the group stage of the Challenge Cup before commencing with the regular season, this year those games are interspersed throughout the season. This model is similar to the one used by the US Open Cup on the men’s side, and by most European Cup competitions. The benefits are two-fold.
First, all league games are being played on weekends this year, with only occasional Cup games now scheduled for midweek. This reduces some of the schedule congestion and travel challenges teams faced in prior years, and should boost attendance for league matches.
Second, by scheduling many of the Challenge Cup games midweek and during this summer’s World Cup, it provides opportunities for depth players to get meaningful minutes throughout the season in games that won’t have an impact on the playoff race. The extended regular season schedule also means teams will be missing their international stars for significantly fewer league games this year than in prior World Cup years. Even with the reduced absences, you can expect to see a number of additional players join the team this summer as National Team Replacement Players. In past seasons, some of those NTRPs have become important contributors who have gone on to earn full-time contracts.
VAR is coming to the NWSL
If you’ve watched international soccer or MLS in the past few years, you’ve likely seen officiating decisions go to video review, known as Video Assistant Referee or VAR. The NWSL will become the first women’s club competition to add VAR this season. They will be using the same technology, officials, and guidance as used by MLS, which means all goals, penalty kicks, and potentially bookable fouls will be checked remotely, with anything rising to the level of probable error flagged for the center official to review on a video screen at the stadium. One important and noticeable change will come on offside calls — assistant referees will now be instructed to delay raising their flag on any marginal offside call, and instead wait for the scoring opportunity to finish before making a decision. This enables play to continue if the attacker was indeed not offside, reducing the risk of a goal incorrectly called back, but at the trade-off of allowing some offside plays to proceed longer than necessary.
Concomitant with the implementation of VAR is a significantly increased investment in video production by the league this season. Every stadium will be adding cameras in order to capture additional angles critical for effective VAR review, and the league has also made investments to improve video resolution, so hopefully the days of watching games filmed by a potato are in the past.
Games will no longer be on Twitch
The NWSL’s broadcast deal with Twitch ended after last season, so figuring out where to watch games should be much easier this year, at least for Americans. In the U.S., the vast majority games will continue to be shown on Paramount+, with a select number of matches airing on either CBS Sports Network or big CBS. OL Reign currently has two matches scheduled for CBSSN (April 19 at Angel City, and June 3 when they host Portland as part of the double-header). Should they make the Challenge Cup knockout rounds or the NWSL Playoffs, those games would also be on CBSSN and/or CBS.
International viewers will have to do a little more research ahead of each game. For localities without a separate broadcast deal, all games will be shown for free on the league website at NWSLSoccer.com. In Canada, TSN has signed a broadcast deal with the league to show roughly 40 percent of matches on either TSN or TSN+, with the remainder accessible for free on the league website. Similarly, DAZN’s YouTube channel will be non-exclusively showing select NWSL matches for viewers in Brazil, Japan, and much of Europe. In Central America, Tigo has an agreement to air NWSL games.
The 2023 NWSL season kicks off on Saturday, March 25 with two games — North Carolina Courage hosts KC Current at 11 AM PT on Paramount+, and the Chicago Red Stars visit San Diego Wave at 7 PM PT on CBSSN. OL Reign open their season at the Washington Spirit on Sunday, March 26 at 1 PM PT on Paramount+ or on TV locally via FOX 13+. Opening weekend wraps up with three other games on Sunday — Orlando Pride at Portland Thorns (2 PM PT, Paramount+), Racing Louisville at Houston Dash (4 PM PT, Paramount+), and NJ/NY Gotham FC at Angel City FC (6 PM PT, Paramount+).