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Cut4's Guide to Niche Sports: the National Women's Soccer League

Baseball is amazing, but every team also has off days. Cut4 is here to the rescue. We'll be profiling some of the world's lower-profile sports, starting with the National Women's Soccer League.

Remember this? What about this? How awesome were those moments?

The National Women's Soccer League kicks off this Saturday, and it'll feature those very same women playing each week. The games are fast-paced, the players are charismatic and the whole experience is unique among sports in the US.

Here's our guide to get you caught up to speed for the inaugural NWSL season:


Here are the basics: the league is subsidized by the American, Mexican and Canadian national teams as a way of showcasing their players and keeping them fit between international competitions.

There are eight teams spread across some of the best soccer towns in the country. Each team plays a total of 22 games, with most occurring on weekends. At the end of the season in August, the top four teams advance to a single-elimination tournament to determine the league champion.

The teams were constructed via an allocation process from the national teams of the US, Mexico and Canada. Each squad is only allowed to have two international players in addition to these allocated players. The rest of the roster consists of players acquired either via the draft or free agency, and the salary cap for each team is $500,000.

The focus is on presenting the best players from America, Mexico and Canada. Some superstars, like the Brazillian phenom Marta, have chosen to play in Europe largely due to the financial restrictions placed on the American franchises (her new contract alone would take up 80 percent of a squad's payroll). As the NWSL grows both in stature and financial security, it's likely that the salary restrictions will soften and the talent pool will deepen even further.

The Teams

Here's a list of each team, as well as some key players on each squad:

Boston Breakers - Somerville, Massachusetts
Key Players: Sydney Leroux, Heather Mitts, Heather O'Reilly, Rhian Wilkinson

Chicago Red Stars - Lisle, Illinois
Key Players: Maribel Dominguez, Erin McLeod,  Shannon Boxx, Zakiya Bywaters

FC Kansas City - Overland Park, Kansas
Key Players: Lauren Cheney, Kristie Mewis, Lauren Sesselman,

Portland Thorns - Portland, Oregon
Key Players: Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Luz Saucedo

Seattle Reign FC - Tukwila, Washington
Key Players: Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Amy Rodriguez, Kaylyn Kyle

Sky Blue FC - Piscataway, New Jersey
Key Players: Sophie Schmidt, Christie Rampone, Kelley O'Hara, Lindsi Lisonbee-Cutshall

Washington Spirit - Germantown, Maryland
Key Players: Guadalupe Worbis, Diana Matheson, Ali Krieger

Western New York Flash - Rochester, New York
Key Players: Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Jodi-Ann Robinson

The Favorites

Seattle and Portland are both passionate soccer towns, with the former home to the MLS' extremely popular Sounders.

Unsurprisingly, Seattle Reign FC and Portand Thorns have the best teams on paper. Well-known American goalkeeper Hope Solo is likely the best female keeper in the world, and Megan Rapinoe is an ultra-talented passer (and singer) in the midfield.

For Portland, Alex Morgan is a capable gunner and Mexican national Luz Saucedo is a staunch defender. Those two teams are the presumptive favorites at the start of the season..

Other Players to Watch

Chicago has two brilliant internationals in Maribel Dominguez and Erin McLeod. Dominquez is, by acclamation, one of the greatest female soccer players in Mexico's history, and McLeod is a brilliant keeper for Canada's squad. They should be contenders for a playoff spot.

Boston features the electric forward Sydney Leroux, while Western New York stars Abby Wambach, the greatest American goal-scorer since Mia Hamm.

There's something for everyone in this league. If you like hyper-competitive athletes, Hope Solo's your girl. If you like hip teams that fly under the radar, take a look at Sky Blue FC.

Soccer is a thrilling sport, and the quality of play in the NWSL should be outstanding. Check it out -- you'll be glad you did.

-- Dakota Gardner /