Welcome to NWSL 2.0: The return of team sports is also the start of a new era

When the NWSL kicks off its 2020 Challenge Cup on Saturday, bringing major American team sports back from a three-month coronavirus layoff, its three most famous players will be at home.

Megan Rapinoe elected to not participate.

Carli Lloyd is injured.

Alex Morgan gave birth last month. Her team, the Orlando Pride, won’t compete anyway.

Yet the tournament represents a massive opportunity for the league — in part despite those player absences, in part because of them.

Because this is a new NWSL, with a new commissioner and new TV deal and new sponsors. Which means it’s time, or perhaps past time, to sell fans a new generation of stars. Eight of the 13 USWNT World Cup winners aged 29 or older won’t be in Utah. But Crystal Dunn will be. Rose Lavelle will be. Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis will be. Arguably the best North American women’s club team ever will be.

Julie Ertz (left) and the Chicago Red Stars will try to wrestle the NWSL crown from Lynn Williams and the North Carolina Courage. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

For years, the NWSL has been forced to navigate a troublesome dichotomy. Most successful sports leagues can promote marketable stars who win. Men’s soccer has Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who’ve lifted a combined 61 club trophies. The NFL has Tom Brady, and now Patrick Mahomes. The NBA hasn’t had a Finals without LeBron James or Steph Curry in 10 years. And the NWSL?

Rapinoe, Morgan and Lloyd connected casual soccer fans to the league. From 2016-19, however, they started less than half of their clubs’ games. They combined for more ninth-place finishes (three) than playoff wins (zero). They attracted audiences, but didn’t necessarily compel those audiences to stick around. That disconnect, between attraction and retention, was problematic.

In 2020, it is no more.

Fans will tune in because they are starving. They’ll tune to CBS at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and see Dunn, a personable national team star who’s even better for her club. They’ll see Horan, the MVP of the last uninterrupted season. They’ll see the two teams — the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns — who’ve defined the league over the past three years. On Saturday night, they’ll see Ertz, and Lavelle, and the two teams — Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit — best positioned to dethrone the champs.

They’ll see a month-long tournament that COVID-19 could yet set aflame. It isn’t quite NWSL 2.0. More like 1.5.

But it’s a chance for the league to build around the players who’ll drive NWSL 2.0 forward. An overdue step of bona fide stars into the spotlight. An introduction to USWNTers of tomorrow. A validation, hopefully, of progress. And a sign of more to come.

NWSL Challenge Cup basics

When: June 27-July 26

Where: A quasi-bubble in Utah, with all games at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman until the semifinals and final, which will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy

What’s the format?

Four group stage games apiece — 16 in total — will determine seeding for a three-round knockout tournament. The NWSL is a nine-team league, but since the Orlando Pride withdrew due to a coronavirus outbreak, every team will make the quarterfinals. Here’s the full schedule.

Who’s the favorite?

The North Carolina Courage are two-time defending champs. With last year’s roster all but intact, they’re also heavy favorites for an asterisked three-peat.

How can I watch?

CBS has broadcast rights for the Challenge Cup (which will likely be the entire 2020 season) and for the league going forward.

The opener and final will be on big CBS. CBS Sports Network will air replays. Every game will be on CBS All Access, a streaming platform that’ll cost you $5.99 for the month. Oh, and you can get your first week free.

Who should I watch?

Here’s a very non-exhaustive list of 14 players — some already mentioned, some you’ve probably heard of, perhaps some you haven’t — to know and keep an eye on:

  • Crystal Dunn, M, Courage/USA

  • Rose Lavelle, M, Spirit/USA

  • Debinha, M, Courage/Brazil

  • Lindsey Horan, M, Thorns/USA

  • Julie Ertz, D/M, Red Stars/USA

  • Sam Mewis, M, Courage/USA

  • Andi Sullivan, M, Spirit/USA

  • Yuki Nagasato, M, Red Stars/Japan

  • Lynn Williams, F, Courage/USA

  • Jessica McDonald, F, Courage/USA

  • Jess Fishlock, M, Reign/Wales

  • Alana Cook, D, Reign/USA

  • Sophia Smith, F, Thorns/USA

  • Bethany Balcer, F, Reign/USA

  • Midge Purce, F, Sky Blue/USA

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