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CBS will air NWSL opener between Spirit and Reign as part of women’s pro soccer package

A sellout crowd welcomed the Washington Spirit to Audi Field last August. The team will play four matches there this season. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The National Women’s Soccer League is preparing to announce a multiyear TV contract with CBS Sports, and the network will show the Washington Spirit’s April 18 opener against Reign FC on the national over-the-air channel as part of this season’s package, multiple people close to the situation said Thursday.

The network and the league are expected to announce the deal next week.

The Equalizer and Sports Illustrated were first to report about the CBS-NWSL pact. With the season approaching, the league and network agreed to begin their partnership with the Spirit-Reign match at Audi Field, which will feature, among others, U.S. World Cup stars Rose Lavelle (who plays for Washington) and Megan Rapinoe (of the Tacoma, Wash.-based Reign).

For aesthetic reasons, the venue for CBS’s debut broadcast was important in the decision. The Spirit is aiming to sell out the 20,000-seat stadium, which is typically home to MLS’s D.C. United. The 1 p.m. kickoff prevented the Portland Thorns, the league’s runaway attendance leaders, from hosting the nationally televised match.

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CBS reportedly will show a few matches on the national over-the-air channel, several on CBS Sports Network and the rest via a streaming service. The network and league will detail the extent of the coverage as part of the formal announcement next week.

At a Spirit media event Thursday at Audi Field, owner Steve Baldwin said the April 18 opener will be a “big event for the league” and cited a league announcement next week. In a separate interview, he said he did not want to elaborate.

Last year, following the U.S. World Cup triumph in France, ESPN networks carried 14 NWSL matches. In previous years, the league appeared on ESPN and Fox Sports platforms, Lifetime and streaming services.

The Spirit has been based at Maryland SoccerPlex in suburban Montgomery County since the NWSL launched in 2013, but after drawing two big crowds at Audi Field last year, the team will make four appearances there this season.

As part of an agreement with United, which owns Audi Field, the Spirit also will play four matches at Segra Field, a 5,000-seat venue in Leesburg operated by the MLS organization and used by D.C.’s second-division squad, Loudoun United.

The remaining four home games will be held at the 5,200-capacity SoccerPlex. In 2021, Washington plans to play seven home matches at Audi Field and five at Segra Field.

The deal with United also will require the Spirit to move operations to Leesburg, where United is building a training center. It is slated to open sometime this year.

The Spirit’s other games at Audi Field are June 20 against Portland, Aug. 30 against Sky Blue FC and Oct. 10 against the Chicago Red Stars.

Although playing at three home venues is not ideal, Baldwin said, “I would be surprised if we didn’t sell out 10 games.”

Meanwhile, the Spirit will open training camp late next week in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Coach Richie Burke said the team is, for the time being, done making major roster moves. This offseason, the Spirit traded U.S. World Cup attacker Mallory Pugh to New Jersey-based Sky Blue for, among other things, the No. 4 draft pick, which it used to select UCLA forward Ashley Sanchez, a junior national team standout.

Washington also signed Japanese national team forward Kumi Yokoyama and added two goalkeepers.

The team is preparing to move forward without Jamaican national team forward Cheyna Matthews (three goals, two assists). She has requested to pause her career for family reasons, Burke said.

“We are waiting to find out what Cheyna wants to do with her career,” Burke said. “She is certainly not going to retire, but once it’s decided what kind of hiatus she is going on, we have got to add a player.”

The Spirit is looking at both recent college players and professionals abroad.

“I am happy with the pieces we’ve got,” said Burke, whose young team was 9-8-7 last year and finished fifth, one spot out of a playoff berth. “The job is for us to get the blend right, to get the relationships right. We’ve got a lot of players who play good attacking football. I’m just worried about who is going to defend.”

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