NWSL opening weekend recap

NWSL opening weekend recap

Women's pro soccer in the US finally kicked off their 2024 season this past weekend and I tried to watch all seven games, so here’s some quick thoughts on each.

San Diego Wave vs. NY/NJ Gotham: Challenge Cup

In the past, the NWSL kicked off each season with a month-long pre-season they dubbed a "Challenge Cup" before regular games began (and counted), but unfortunately we saw a lot of injuries from players still rusty and coming back from a long winter break. For the sake of player safety, I'm glad they changed the Challenge Cup to just one game between 2023's shield winner (SD) and the 2023 championship winner (Gotham).

This was also the first weekly Friday night game on Amazon Prime and you could tell because Amazon made the young kids wear big blue Prime⤴️ sweatshirts as they walked out with the players before kickoff. The commentators also wore Amazon Prime logos on their clothing and the microphones had the Prime logo on the front. I don't know how I feel about using kids as advertisements but I'm glad the league is getting support from big companies like Amazon.

Gotham did the impossible last season, going from a last place ranking at the beginning of the season to ultimately winning the whole thing. Over the winter, Gotham picked up several more players from the US Women's National Team giving Gotham an incredibly stacked roster.

The first half had Gotham dominating and taking shot after shot. The second half was a bit more even in terms of possession and in the 88th minute Alex Morgan (who came in as a sub) headed one in. Overall a pretty level match but thankfully for San Diego, two of Gotham's best players, Lynn Williams and Rose Lavelle were out with minor injuries. If Rose and Lynn were there, I think the game would have probably ended 2-0 Gotham.

Portland Thorns vs Kansas City Current

This was the biggest anticipated game of the year for me. Portland and Kansas City have traditionally been the first game of the season as they kicked off the entire league in 2013 playing against one another. As KC Current star Kristen Hamilton said in a pre-game interview, during her first season she had to change into her uniform in her car in the parking lot, since there was no locker room. It's also worth knowing the very first NWSL game was played on a high school soccer field.

For 2024, the NWSL season opener was played in KC's brand new $120M stadium complete with locker rooms you'd normally see in the NFL. My how times have changed.

The Current's stadium right on the river in downtown KC

Portland is my beloved local team, but we lost a lot of midfielders and defenders from free agency and expansion drafts in the past few months. I'm also not 100% sure our interim coach is the best long term choice for the team. The starting 11 he picked featured almost half players new to the team that likely haven't had a chance to gel yet.

KC came out swinging and the Portland defense was non-existent from the get-go. The Current scored their first 3 goals easily in about 30 minutes and unfortunately the Thorns normal backup goalie struggled in the spotlight. It's strange, Shelby Hogan has been great in the past as our occasional goalie but with the new defenders and her new status as head goalkeeper while Bella Bixby is out on maternity leave, she played nervous and sloppy instead of her usual kickass, composed self.

The score stretched all the way to 5-1 with KC dominating the pitch. The second half had Portland playing catchup and it was a miracle that they clawed back a 5-4 final, nearly tying it up in the final extra minutes. But I will say if KC's Debinha didn't go out with a hamstring pull early in the second half, I don't think the game would have been as close as it ended up being.

Fun stat: there's only been 5 games in the history of the NWSL where teams scored 9 goals or more, and it made for an exciting opener in an incredible new stadium, the first pro stadium dedicated to women's sports.

Racing Louisville vs Orlando Pride

Orlando was favored to win this one but Racing came out swinging in their home opener and quickly scored two in the first 20 minutes. They rode high through the whole first half but eventually Orlando wore them down. First an accidental own goal on a cross from Orlando, then late in the game Orlando tied it up. I'm a big fan of Louisville and it was a bummer to see a tie after Racing's great first half.

North Carolina Courage vs. Houston Dash

I only caught the first 30 minutes of this game but from the highlights it looked like NC dominated from end to end. Being early season, it's kind of fun to see lots of goals as people get a feel for their positions, but I was surprised to see this stretch out to a 5-1 North Carolina win. Houston needs to do some serious rethinking of their back line for next week. The normally great Jane Campbell didn't have a good day in the box either.

Utah Royals vs Chicago Red Stars

There are 14 teams in the NWSL and 13 of those are at or near sea level. The Utah Royals play at an elevation of 4500 feet and I was worried altitude could be a huge factor in the second halves of Utah's home games as visitors get worn down in the thin air. Chicago has also gone through a lot lately, firing coach after coach, having many star players leave for other teams, and then a new ownership change on top of all that.

I thought Utah might come out ahead but being an expansion team isn't easy and Chicago took this one 2-0 in a game where Red Stars goalie Alyssa Naeher put on an incredible performance much like her recent USWNT matches. She prevented goal after goal after goal and will certainly be named for save of the week. It was great to see Mallory Swanson return after a year off for an ACL tear but she wasn't a huge factor in the game.

Seattle Reign vs Washington Spirit

Teams in the NWSL are pretty evenly matched but opening weekend games were seemingly lopsided with a more successful team usually paired with another lower ranked team. Reign vs. The Spirit was different, with both of them league contenders when they're playing at the top of their game.

This ended up being a bizarre game. It opened with the quickest penalty kick in the history of the league, with a player being taken down in the box just after the opening kick, 12 seconds into the match. The following PK went in, and then Washington fought all game long to try and come back.

In the second half there were two questionable calls. One goal was pulled back when a rookie defender took out the goalie before the set piece began. I agreed with the ruling after seeing the replay, but I'm not so sure about the second call where the Spirit's Kingsbury earned a red card while saving a shot. There's no good replay from the side in the recap video above, but I'm not sure the ball was completely out of the plane of the box when the call was made.

To be honest, all the opening weekend games suffered from uneven officiating, but I guess that's what happens in early season play, as the referees get their bearings right alongside the players. But it sucks when a couple decisions swing a game and I'm sure Seattle enjoyed their 1-0 win.

Angel City vs Bay FC

The Bay FC are a new expansion team and new teams historically lose their first games. Los Angeles and San Francisco are often rivals in other sports so I was looking forward to this one. LA played a decent game, but Bay FC's new superstar forward straight out of Barcelona got one in early in the first half.

Bay FC's goalkeeper did an incredible job akin to Naeher's the night before for Chicago, and even Bay's back line defenders saved certain goals by standing in the right place at the right time. Great defense was the only reason Bay FC upset Angel City here, but it was good to see a new team open with a quick success.

I don't know if I'll do a recap every week for the NWSL but figured I'd test it out with the opening weekend. For week two, I'm really looking forward to Portland's first home game this Sunday.