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NWSL’s 7th season opens, looks for bump in World Cup year

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The NWSL opens its seventh season this weekend with some lingering questions about its health, but also the encouraging possibility of a “bump” from the World Cup.

The National Women’s Soccer League has already outlasted any of the other previous pro women’s leagues in the United States. With support from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the NWSL has fared better than the earlier attempts.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns going into Year 7 – many of which were there in the sixth season, too. Possible expansion, the stability of some individual clubs, a need for sponsorships and the lack of a TV deal are among the issues faced by the league that hasn’t had a commissioner since Jeff Plush stepped down in March 2017.

Still, the NWSL could get greater exposure starting in June when the World Cup opens in France. NWSL rosters are filled with national team players from around the globe. Teams will have to navigate player absences during the tournament but could win fans for the latter half of the season – much like after the last World Cup in 2015, which the U.S. won.

Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said she believes the league is still headed in the right direction. But continued success will depend on both investment and the will to see it through.

“The most important thing is investment across the league, in human resources; whether that’s coaching or whether that’s just staff that’s helping out, whether that’s in better fields, whether that’s in better housing, whether that’s in whatever. Making the league better, in the league front office but also the clubs’ front offices, I want that,” she said. “And if we can get that, year after year after year then I think we’ll be in a good place.”

The defending champion North Carolina Courage will open the season Saturday night at home against the Chicago Red Stars, one of four games set for this weekend. The Courage defeated the Thorns 3-0 in the title game in front of a crowd of 21,144 in Portland last fall.

The victory capped a fantastic season for the Courage, who went 18-1-6 overall, won the league’s Supporters’ Shield for best record and never dropped a game on the road.

HOW TO WATCH: The NWSL and A+E Networks terminated their broadcast agreement in February, leaving the league with no TV partner. Last season, a `Game of the Week’ aired on the Lifetime channel. A+E also surrendered its stake in the league, but Lifetime remains a jersey sponsor.

At least for now, the league’s games will be streamed live exclusively on the Yahoo Sports app, or on the Yahoo website.

EXPANSION: The league currently stands at nine teams. Since the Boston Breakers folded just before the start of last season, there have been persistent rumors about whether the team will be revived by a new ownership group. Spanish club Barcelona had expressed interest in fielding an NWSL team, although there has been no movement on that front. Major League Soccer’s LAFC could also jump into the fray, with co-owner Mia Hamm suggesting as recently as last week that it is a priority.

Despite all the chatter, NWSL President Amanda Duffy previously indicated the league likely won’t make any expansion announcements until after this season.

WHAT’S GOING ON WITH SKY BLUE? The troubles that plagued New Jersey’s team, Sky Blue, were well documented last year after former player Sam Kerr, now with Chicago, hinted at issues. But improvements have been made.

In February, Sky Blue announced that Tammy Murphy, the wife of part-owner Gov. Phil Murphy, would take a more active role in running the team. And indeed, improvements have been made, with better housing and staff additions. The team will train this season at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, and have access to the school’s wellness facilities in addition to practice fields.

Tony Novo, who served as team president and general manager, resigned and Alyse LaHue was named interim GM. Novo had been criticized by the Cloud 9 supporters’ group.

SCHEDULE: The league will take a short break during the group stage of the World Cup in France. But a chunk of the league’s players will be away with their national teams for extended periods this season. The NWSL allowed teams to expand rosters to 22 players, in addition to four supplemental players who won’t count against the salary cap.

Teams play a 24-game schedule that wraps up Oct. 12. The championship game is scheduled for Oct. 26.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Questions hang over NWSL in World Cup season

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The NWSL opens its seventh season this weekend with some lingering questions about its health, but also the encouraging possibility of a World Cup “bump.”

The National Women’s Soccer League has already outlasted any of the other previous pro women’s leagues in the United States. With support from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the NWSL was always positioned to fare better than the earlier attempts.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns going into Year 7 – many of which were there in the sixth season, too. Possible expansion, the stability of some individual clubs, a need for sponsorships and the lack of a TV deal are among the issues faced by the league that hasn’t had a commissioner since Jeff Plush stepped down in March 2017.

Still, the NWSL could get greater exposure starting in June when the World Cup opens in France, since NWSL rosters are filled with national team players from around the globe. Teams will have to navigate player absences during the tournament but could win fans for the latter half of the season – much like after the last World Cup in 2015.

Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said she believes the league is still headed in the right direction, but, like anything, continued success will depend on both investment and the will to see it through.

“The most important thing is investment across the league, in human resources; whether that’s coaching or whether that’s just staff that’s helping out, whether that’s in better fields, whether that’s in better housing, whether that’s in whatever. Making the league better, in the league front office but also the clubs’ front offices, I want that,” she said. “And if we can get that, year after year after year then I think we’ll be in a good place.”

The defending champion North Carolina Courage will open the season Saturday night at home against the Chicago Red Stars, one of four games set for this weekend. The Courage defeated the Thorns 3-1 in the title game in front of a crowd of 21,144 in Portland last fall.

The victory capped a fantastic season for the Courage, who went 18-1-6 overall, won the league’s Supporters’ Shield for best record and never dropped a game on the road.

HOW TO WATCH: The NWSL and A+E Networks terminated their broadcast agreement in February, leaving the league with no TV partner. Last season, a `Game of the Week’ aired on the Lifetime channel. A+E also surrendered its stake in the league, but Lifetime remains a jersey sponsor.

At least for now, the league’s games will be streamed live exclusively on the Yahoo Sports app, or on the Yahoo website.

EXPANSION: The league currently stands at nine teams. Since the Boston Breakers folded just before the start of last season, there have been persistent rumors about whether the team will be revived by a new ownership group. Spanish club Barcelona had expressed interest in fielding an NWSL team, although there has been no movement on that front, either. Major League Soccer’s LAFC could also jump into the fray, with co-owner Mia Hamm suggesting as recently as last week that it is a priority.

Despite all the chatter, NWSL President Amanda Duffy previously indicated the league likely won’t make any expansion announcements until after this season.

WHAT’S GOING ON WITH SKY BLUE? The troubles that plagued New Jersey’s team, Sky Blue, were well documented last year after former player Sam Kerr, now with Chicago, hinted at issues. But improvements have been made.

In February, Sky Blue announced that Tammy Murphy, the wife of part-owner Gov. Phil Murphy, would take a more active role in running the team. And indeed, improvements have been made, with better housing and staff additions. The team will train this season at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, and have access to the school’s wellness facilities in addition to practice fields.

Tony Novo, who served as team president and general manager, resigned and Alyse LaHue was named interim GM. Novo had been criticized by the Cloud 9 supporters’ group.

SCHEDULE: The league will take a short break during the group stage of the World Cup in France. But a chunk of the league’s players will be away with their national teams for extended periods this season. The NWSL allowed teams to expand rosters to 22 players, in addition to four supplemental players who won’t count against the salary cap.

Teams play a 24-game schedule that concludes on Oct. 12. The championship game is scheduled for Oct. 26 this season.

USWNT legend O’Reilly to retire after NWSL season

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HAO is calling it a career.

Heather O’Reilly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and 2015 Women’s World Cup winner, announced Friday that she’ll be hanging up her boots at the end of the 2019 NWSL season.

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O’Reilly has won the WPS with Sky Blue FC, FA Cup with Arsenal, and NWSL titles with both North Carolina Courage and FC Kansas City.

She accumulated a wild 231 caps in a decade-and-a-half with the USWNT, scoring 42 goals.

Only seven USWNT players have been capped more times than O’Reilly.

New Jersey first lady to get more involved with Sky Blue

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The wife of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says she’ll take a more active role in running Sky Blue, the professional women’s soccer club based in the state.

The Murphys are part owners of the National Women’s Soccer League team, whose facilities and player accommodations have been criticized.

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“We recognize there have been challenges, but I am looking forward to working with our team to create a climate of success,” Tammy Murphy said in a statementTuesday. “We are excited about the new players who are now a part of the Sky Blue family, and we can’t wait to see them join our returning players. But above all, we appreciate the dedication and loyalty of our fans.”

Last summer multiple reports surfaced that Sky Blue players faced substandard playing and living conditions, following cryptic comments by former forward Sam Kerr. The team had no restrooms or running water at its training facility, and some players were housed in apartments where cardboard or plastic covered broken windows, among other issues. Sky Blue won just one game last season.

The team’s supporters group, Cloud 9, has called for the firing of Sky Blue president and general manager Tony Novo.

Sky Blue’s two top draft picks this year, Hailie Mace (second overall) and Julia Ashley (sixth overall), have opted to play elsewhere. Ashley, a New Jersey native, will play in Sweden. Midfielder Carli Lloyd is the team’s lone allocated U.S. national team player.

In her statement, Tammy Murphy pointed to “upscale apartments and new furnishings” for the players. She also said staff would be increased by 40 percent, and administrative offices would be moved closer to player housing.

Tammy Murphy also suggested that both practice and playing facilities would be improved, but offered no specifics. She promised additional information would be shared shortly.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

National Women’s Soccer League recognizes players union

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CHICAGO (AP) The National Women’s Soccer League has formally recognized the NWSL Players Association as the exclusive bargaining representative for the league’s players.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings | 3 things ]

The NWSLPA represents current and future players who have signed standard player agreements with the NWSL. U.S. national team players who are allocated throughout the league are represented by the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association.

“We’ve now achieved official status as a labor union, but we intend to approach our relationship with the league in a very different way than what comes to mind with traditional labor relations,” said union President Yael Averbuch, who plays for the Seattle Reign. “The NWSLPA is glad to continue a collaborative relationship with the league, with the health and sustainability of the league central to the ongoing relationship.”

The NWSL just wrapped up its sixth season.