(CBS Local)- The NWSL's 2021 Challenge Cup kicks off this Friday, April 9 with a rematch of last year's title game between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars on CBS Sports Network. After the Challenge Cup crowns its champion on May, 8, the league will play a 24-game regular season that starts on May 15 and finishes on October 30 with playoffs starting the next week and the NWSL Championship set for November 20.
Combine all of that with the Tokyo Olympics this summer and it's a big year for women's soccer on a big stage. Commissioner Lisa Baird, excited for the start of the 2021 campaign, said that the success of the Challenge Cup format last year was a big reason for bringing it back once again but with the added benefit of allowing some of the international athletes who play in the league to showcase their games before this summer's Olympics.
"Because there was so much acceptance, people loved the format, they liked the high intensity, the fact that it was a quick tournament. But this year actually, we're really going to benefit from the fact that we have this early round where you're going to see a lot of the players that are going to the Tokyo Olympics," said Baird in an interview with CBS Local's Ryan Mayer. "In addition to it being great for our league, it's a great showcase for those national team players. I think you're going to see a lot of women's soccer athletes this year and it will be great to watch them here and also competing in Tokyo."
For the 2021 season, there will be a pair of new teams added to the fold with the league returning to one of its original homes in Kansas City taking over the Utah Royals FC roster and adding a new home in Louisville with the debut of Racing Louisville FC. Baird is just as excited as fans to see those two franchises debut.
"Racing Louisville we had been working on as an expansion market for a very long time and that stadium, is just gorgeous," said Baird. "I think that America is going to fall in love with Kentucky once again because they're just gracious with grit and I'm really expecting a lot from that team. Kansas City, do not underestimate that city because they came in on fire. Their ownership group, Chris and Angie Long, made an immense amount happen as they took over the roster late in the season. When I saw what Kansas City did to not only open their hearts but basically give the athletes the keys to the city. They're playing for Kansas City and that is a sports town. We're starting to see an excitement in the NWSL as these new teams come in there will be new rivalries formed."
One such new rivalry is the one that jumpstarts this season with the Dash and Red Stars meeting at BBVA Stadium in Houston. Baird will be in attendance for the game and she's looking forward to seeing fans back in the stands, one element that was missing from last season due to the COVID pandemic.
"We feel such ownership with our fan base, they're part of who we are. We've been working with each of the teams and also state and local health officials to make sure, frankly, that not only are we in line with state and local guidelines but in some cases we're beating them," said Baird. "But, I will say it is so exciting to see fans back in the stadiums. And I'm sure it's going to be exciting for our women, it's been awhile since they've played in front of fans. I think our players have always had a special relationship with the fans you see them, they're accessible. While we're not going to be doing things like we normally do like signing autographs or having them near the field, we can't do that but I know that special bond is there."
Baird will be among those fans heading to BBVA Stadium for the first match of the 2021 Challenge Cup on Friday, April 9 with start time set for 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.
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