2023 NWSL schedule finally released: New format for Challenge Cup

The agonies of NWSL fans (and even players) are over, as the league’s 2023 schedule is finally out.

In just 45 days, the regular season will begin with a March 25 opening day that will see the North Carolina Courage host the Kansas City Current, and a San Diego Wave vs. Chicago Red Stars match on the west coast.

The regular season will run until October 15, which will see the NWSL try something out for the first time: a ‘Decision Day’ set-up in which all 12 teams will kick their respective finales off at 5 p.m. ET. Given how tight the standings were down the stretch last year, a thrilling finish for multiple clubs seems baked into this year’s schedule.

The league took plenty of criticism for not having the schedule out sooner, something that commissioner Jessica Berman acknowledged on social media. However, the reality for the league is that its teams don’t hold outright control of any venue, and must work around the schedules in Major League Soccer, the USL Championship, USL League One, and even three different football leagues (the NFL in Seattle, the XFL in D.C., and college football in San Diego) to sort out a schedule.

One difficult guarantee Berman had offered — removing mid-week games from the regular season schedule — proved to be almost entirely true. There is just one mid-week regular season game all season, with Angel City FC hosting the Orlando Pride on Thursday, Sept. 28.

2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup break (kinda)

The schedule will include breaks for the April and September FIFA international windows, and a World Cup break of sorts. While the regular season will in fact pause from July 9 — the day before FIFA’s pre-World Cup window opens — and not pick up again until Aug. 18, there will be 16 Challenge Cup matches during the World Cup.

There’s also an unavoidable truth: NWSL will resume regular-season play on Aug. 18, which means a full slate of fixtures will be played on the same weekend as the World Cup final and third-place game. Two games (Orlando hosting Chicago, and North Carolina’s road trip to face the Portland Thorns) will take place on the day of the final.

The NWSL playoffs will retain their six-team structure, with the top two finishers in the regular season receiving byes to the semifinal round. The postseason will start on Oct. 22 (quarterfinals), with the semifinals set for Nov. 4. The championship game will take place on Nov. 11, at a venue yet to be announced.

Challenge Cup mixed in

NWSL had said it would shift the Challenge Cup away from being a preseason tournament, instead playing those games throughout the season. The old format drew intense criticism from players and teams, with mixed messages — it’s a season-opening warm-up, but for many players, the champion’s bonus represented 25% of their yearly salary — and an erratic schedule leaving no one happy.

This year’s Challenge Cup will begin on Wednesday, April 19, sandwiched between full regular season slates on the weekends before and after. That’s not particularly convenient, but ultimately NWSL runs into reality: there are only so many weekends in a year, and popular sentiment among players and teams seems to hold that the regular season should be given preference.

Some elements have been maintained: the 12-team NWSL will be divided geographically, and teams will play home and away against each other team in their group. Those groups are as follows:

East: North Carolina Courage, NJ/NY Gotham FC, Orlando Pride, Washington SpiritCentral: Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City Current, Racing LouisvilleWest: Angel City FC, OL Reign, Portland Thorns, San Diego Wave

The Challenge Cup semifinals are scheduled for Sept. 6, and the final is set just three days later on Sept. 9. Unlike last year, when an absolute mess played out requiring multiple teams to reschedule (including, in one case, a home opener), the slate will be clear of regular season games ahead of time.

The Challenge Cup still comes with some oddities: while 10 teams will play on April 19, Racing Louisville won’t make their debut in the tournament until May 17. Much of the tournament will be packed into the back half of the World Cup break, with 16 of the Challenge Cup’s 36 group-stage games being played from July 21-Aug. 6.

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