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NWSL 101: An overview and introduction for Utah Royals fans

An overview for anyone not familiar with the National Women’s Soccer League.

NWSL logo

The National Women’s Soccer League is the top women’s professional soccer league in the United States, and with a sixth season beginning in 2018, it is the first professional women’s league to play more than three seasons. The league began its first season in 2013 with eight teams (Washington Spirit, Sky Blue FC, Portland Thorns FC, FC Kansas City, Seattle Reign FC, Western New York Flash, Boston Breakers, and Chicago Red Stars).

At the end of the 2013 season, the NWSL added its first expansion team with the Houston Dash entering the league. Two years later, the Orlando Pride joined the NWSL. In January 2017, the Western New York Flash was sold to a North Carolina owner, and the team relocated and rebranded as the North Carolina Courage. As the 2017 season wrapped up, FC Kansas City folded, and Utah Royals FC were introduced to take the place of the newly-defunct team for 2018, keeping the league with ten teams.

The NWSL is subsidized by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) who pay for the salaries of their national team players. Every year, before the start of the season, the federations release their lists of subsidized players.


Traditionally, players report in March and begin the pre-season with conditioning, training, practices, and exhibition games either against other NWSL teams or regional college teams. The season begins in mid-April through the end of September with the postseason in October. The top four teams at the end of the season advance to the semi-finals with the winners of each semi-final to play in the championship game at a neutral site. At the end of the regular season, the team with the highest point total - i.e., the best season record - wins the regular season title, the NWSL Shield.

The season consists of 24 games for each team, 12 each of home and road games. For the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the schedule was disrupted by international competitions (the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics).

The 2018 season is believed to start in March instead of April and finish in September due to the end of the Women’s World Cup qualifying for 2019. The CONCACAF Championship window is set for October 4-17.

Roster Rules

Each team is allowed 18-20 players. Teams may have no more than 20 available players under contract on their roster. An NWSL player is anyone under contract with a team or is not under contract with a team, but has their rights to play in the NWSL controlled by a team.

The league also allows international spots, giving four roster spots designated for international players in 2017 (individuals who do not hold permanent residence status in the United States). Domestic players are U.S. citizens, permanent residents (Green Card holders), or hold refugee or asylum status. International spots can be traded with time as the only condition. Spots can be traded for one year, two years, or forever. There is no limit on the number of international spots with trades a team may have.

For more on the Roster Rules including mechanisms of acquiring players, loans, and transfers, visit

Salary Cap

Each season, teams receive a salary cap that limits their total spending on players. The salary cap applies to non-allocated players (players who are not national team players, whose salaries are paid by their respective soccer federations). The salaries of subsidized players do not count towards their club’s salary cap.

For 2017, the salary cap was set at $315,000. The minimum salary was $15,000, and the maximum was $41,700. The salaries of non-allocated NWSL players have sparked conversation about how far behind the league is in being a place of sustainable employment for many players. Non-allocated players rely on sponsorships, youth coaching opportunities, and part-time jobs to make a living. The 2017 minimum is an increase from the $6,000 minimum when the league started in 2013.

On May 15, 2017, non-allocated players announced the formation of a players’ association, a step towards forming a union.


Beginning in 2017, the NWSL and A+E Networks entered a three-year agreement until 2019. Lifetime, part of the A+E Networks, broadcasts 22 regular-season as the NWSL Game of the Week with an afternoon slot and three postseason games, including the championship game.

The remaining games are streamed via go90 in the United States and through the NWSL website for international viewers.

State of the League

The NWSL is a young league, but it is growing, both in exposure and stability. With growing comes growing pains, including increasing attendance (the average for 2017 was 5,082, a drop of 8.6% from the previous season), finding suitable stadiums for independent teams, adding sponsors, and salary raises for non-subsidized players.