The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) released the schedule for the 2021 Challenge Cup on Tuesday, March 9. The 21-match competition will serve as a preseason tournament and runs from April 9 through May 8. In a rematch of the 2020 final, cup holders Houston Dash will open up the competition at home against the Chicago Red Stars.
Expansion team Racing Louisville FC debuts against the Orlando Pride on April 10 at home while Kansas City, formerly the Utah Royals FC, will make its home debut against the Houston Dash on April 26. Secret Deodorant returns as the presenting sponsor of the competition.
The regular season will begin on May 15 and comprise of 24 matches and run through October 30, 2021. The league has expanded the playoffs this year to six teams with the first round set to begin on November 6. The top two seeds will receive first-round byes. The NWSL Championship is on November 20, 2021 at a venue yet to be named.
The 10 teams will be divided into East and West divisions, with each team playing four matches. At the conclusion of group play, the team with the most points from each division will advance to the championship on May 8 at a venue to be announced at a later date.
Gone is the Challenge Cup Bubble and teams will play in the home venues. It’s up to teams and local COVID-19 guidelines as to whether fans will be allowed to attend matches. Orlando, Sky Blue, and North Carolina, for example, will allow fans to attend home matches, albeit at reduced capacity.
Updated March 12, 2021: OL Reign fans will be allowed in attendance according to state guidelines announced by Governor Jay Inslee on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
Racing Louisville FC
North Carolina Courage
Sky Blue FC
Chicago Red Stars
Kansas City NWSL
Portland Thorns FC
Should teams in the same division be tied for points at the conclusion of group play, the team that advances to the championship will be determined based on the following criteria in the following order:
number of goals;
lowest number of yellow and red cards received; and
the dreaded drawing of lots by the NWSL.
The championship match will head directly to penalty kicks if the match is tied — no extra time.
How to Watch
In the United States, the cup opener plus three other matches will air on the CBS Sports Network. The final will air on the main CBS network and stream on Paramount+ (old CBS All-Access) with the remaining matches streaming only on Paramount+.
The full tournament rules are available here. New from 2020 is the “concussion substitute.” The NWSL is testing the International Football Association Board (IFAB) rule that allows each team two substitutes for players who sustain or are suspected of having a concussion sustained during play. The two substitutions are independent of the five-substitute rule currently adopted by the league due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Secret and the NWSL have created a NWSL Rookie Class program designed to provide sponsorship opportunities for rookies competing in the Challenge Cup.
All times Eastern.
Updated March 12, 2021: OL Reign and Kansas City NWSL announced their match originally scheduled for Sunday, May 2 has been moved to Monday, May 3 at 8 pm ET.
Updated April 3, 2021: Washington Spirit’s match versus Racing Louisville FC has moved to Thursday, April 15 at Audi Field at 7 p.m. ET. The Spirit’s April 27 match against Sky Blue FC at Segra Field has been moved to Audi Field at 7 p.m. ET.