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Saturday May 25th, 2019 1:15PM

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

By The Associated Press
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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

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