The National Women’s Soccer League will ease into the 2021 campaign with the Challenge Cup, a month-long tournament starting Friday. Each of the 10 teams will play four division matches (two home, two away).

The division winners will meet in the championship game May 8. The regular season will commence May 15.

Last year, as the coronavirus pandemic intensified, the Challenge Cup was the league’s primary competition, taking place entirely in the greater Salt Lake City area without fans. (The Houston Dash triumphed.) The NWSL also conducted a small-scale fall series in home markets without spectators.

After playing last fall at Segra Field, the Washington Spirit was planning to return to Leesburg this spring for Challenge Cup games in front of about 1,000 fans. However, people familiar with the situation said, the league has barred matches there until infrastructure upgrades, such as permanent locker rooms, are completed next month.

So the Spirit will play at Audi Field, the 20,000-capacity MLS venue in Washington. The first home match, against Racing Louisville on April 15, will not have spectators. The second, on April 27 against NJ/NY Gotham FC, formerly known as Sky Blue FC,, will have up to 2,000.

In the regular season, the Spirit plans to play at least half of its 12 home matches at Audi Field and the rest at Segra Field.

Washington’s away cup matches are against the North Carolina Courage on Saturday and the Orlando Pride on April 21.

The other division features Houston, the Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns, OL Reign (Tacoma, Wash.) and newly organized Kansas City, which replaced the defunct Utah Royals. (Kansas City has yet to announce a team name.)

CBS Sports Network will carry the opener Friday between Houston and Chicago as well as three other group matches. CBS will show the final. All other games will appear on Paramount Plus, CBS’s subscription streaming service.

Many players around the league will miss the first one or two matches because of national team commitments. The start of the tournament coincides with a FIFA international window, in which clubs are obligated to release players.

The U.S. national team is overseas to play Sweden on Saturday and France on Tuesday. Canada, the NWSL’s biggest supplier of non-American players, will visit Wales and England.

Washington will play without Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett and Andi Sullivan (United States); Saori Takarada (Japan); and Mariana Speckmaier (Venezuela).

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