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NWSL embarks on 10th season, ready to move on from scandals

San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan (13) is greeted by midfielder Taylor Kornieck (22) after Morgan scored a goal against the OL Reign during the first half of an NWSL soccer match, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
Anne M. Peterson Associated Press

The National Women’s Soccer League embarks this weekend on its milestone 10th season with two new teams, a new commissioner and the determination to move on and grow after a series of scandals.

Angel City FC, with its star-studded ownership group, and the San Diego Wave, with former U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis serving as the team’s first president, join the league this season and bring it to 12 teams.

Jessica Berman, a former executive for the NHL and the National Lacrosse League, was named commissioner of the league in March.

Berman believes the league is healthy as it moves into the next decade — and one of the indicators is the expansion.

“But there’s also the number of inbounds that I’ve received personally since the announcement on March 9, from prospective investors who want an expansion team, from brands who want to partner and invest in the NWSL in the sponsorship space, to third-party media support wanting to help to amplify the messages of growth for the league,” Berman said. “There’s just an immense amount of what feels to me like pent-up demand for this league to be able to prove its value moving forward and it has me very enthusiastic about the future.”

Lisa Baird stepped down as commissioner last October after allegations of sexual harassment and coercion were brought against one of the league’s most prominent coaches, North Carolina’s Paul Riley.

Riley resigned and has denied the allegations. He was among five league coaches who either were dismissed or stepped down amid claims of misconduct. They included Louisville’s Christy Holly, the Reign’s Farid Benstiti, Chicago’s Rory Dames and the Washington Spirit’s Richie Burke.

Then, less than a week before Friday’s regular-season opener, Houston Dash coach James Clarkson was suspended pending results of league and team investigations after complaints of discrimination and harassment.

Berman said that while she is disappointed the NWSL continues to deal with such allegations, Clarkson’s suspension shows the systems put in place to protect players are working.

Berman officially took office April 20, so she’s still new to the job.

“There’s a lot I have to learn and a lot I want to do in a very short period of time and so figuring out our priorities and sequencing that plan is really, for me, probably is going to be the most challenging thing, and really setting realistic expectations for both myself and the board about what we can accomplish in the short, medium and long term,” she said.