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NWSL season preview: Four things to watch in landmark fourth season

Alex Morgan leads Orlando's expansion club, the Portland Thorns have stockpiled stars and two-time defending champ FC Kansas City endured major losses. Kayla Lombardo has the key storylines to watch in NWSL's fourth season.

When reigning MVP Crystal Dunn and the Washington Spirit take on the Boston Breakers Saturday night in Maryland, the National Women’s Soccer League’s fourth season will have officially begun. Following a summer in which the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup victory provided a surge for women’s soccer, the NWSL is poised for its most successful campaign to date after crossing the three-season threshold that has crippled past women's professional leagues in the United States. For the 10-team league, there are a number of storylines in play at the season's onset.

Here are four things to watch ahead of the NWSL’s fourth season:

Expansion to Orlando

Introspective, healthy Alex Morgan sees opportunity to seize in 2016

The Orlando Pride became the 10th and newest addition to the NWSL when the team was introduced in October. With star power in the world’s most popular player, U.S. forward Alex Morgan, the club possesses a big name off of which it can build a devoted fan base. Morgan was acquired from the Portland Thorns in the off-season along with Canadian national team midfielder Kaylyn Kyle.

Former Australia and U.S. head coach Tom Sermanni will serve as the team’s manager, while ​goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, midfielder Lianne Sanderson, defender Steph Catley and forward Sarah Hagen will all be called upon to be leaders at their positions during the inaugural season. Sermanni, who was fired by the U.S. in 2014 after 17 months at the national team’s helm and replaced by Jill Ellis​, was an assistant to Canadian coach John Herman during the host country’s quarterfinal run in last summer’s World Cup. The Pride will call the Citrus Bowl home in 2016 before moving to Orlando City's new stadium once it opens next year.

After a preseason in which it went undefeated and outscored opponents 17–1, Orlando will look to contend for a title in 2016 and make an immediate impact on the growing league. The club begins its first season in Portland on Sunday, with its home opener coming on April 23 against Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian and the Houston Dash.

Portland loads up

When the Thorns missed the playoffs for the first time in team history last season, changes were made from the top down to ensure that history would not repeat itself this year. After a 6–9–5 campaign in 2015, Paul Riley stepped down as head coach and former Washington Spirit coach Mark Parsons was hired to replace him. Riley has since signed on as the head coach of the Western New York Flash.

Parsons wasted little time in making an impact, as a blockbuster trade was orchestrated to send Morgan and Kyle to the Pride in exchange for Orlando’s No. 1 selection in January’s draft, two international slots, and a pair of pieces that yielded a pair of U.S. national team players: fullback Meghan Klingenberg and former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lindsay Horan. Portland also signed France star Amandine Henry, added forward Nadia Nadim in a trade with Sky Blue FC this off-season and drafted Virginia and U.S. defender Emily Sonnet with its top pick.

Those additions join incumbent stars like Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath and Allie Long. It's easy to see why the Thorns are a popular pick to win it all.

Following their home opener against the Pride on Sunday, the Thorns travel to Kansas City to take on the defending league champions on April 23. 

FCKC faces adversity after back to back titles

Following two straight championship seasons, FC Kansas City will face its toughest test in franchise history in 2016: quelling the effects of losing its top players in the off-season. Most notably, the club will be without 2013 league MVP Lauren Holiday, who retired at age 28 last year, as well as former U.S. international forward and Holiday’s main target, Amy Rodriguez, who is pregnant with her second child and will miss the entire 2016 campaign.

The Blues also lost Leigh Ann Brown, Amy LePeilbet, Liz Bogus and Meghan Lisenby to retirement, as well as Rodriguez’s replacement, U.S. forward Sydney Leroux, to pregnancy. To boot, forward Sarah Hagen was traded before news about Rodriguez’s pregnancy emerged.

USWNT vs. USMNT equal pay discussion and its complexity

Despite being without most of its previously reliable back line, Kansas City will still possess a major force in U.S. defender and co-captain and three-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn.

Anchoring the club's midfield will be U.S. national team veteran Heather O’Reilly, as well as the Canadian national team’s Desiree Scott, who spent the past two seasons playing overseas.

Kansas City opens the season on Saturday at home against the Flash.

League gets over hump, reaches fourth season

In reaching its fourth season, the NWSL has much to celebrate considering the WUSA and WPS, the two previous women’s professional soccer leagues in America, folded after just three years in existence. And 15 years after the fledgling​ WUSA’s inaugural season, the NWSL is seemingly stable. 

League stability can be seen in an increase in player compensation, though it is clear there is much room to grow in this area, especially amid the ongoing wage dispute the U.S. women have against U.S. Soccer. For the 2016 season, the salary cap has been raised by $13,000, now setting it at $278,000. Along with the cap increase, the league’s maximum and minimum individual salaries were altered this off-season, now up from $37,800 and $6,842 in 2015, respectively, to $39,700 and $7,200 this year. USWNT members earn more than the league maximum, as they are paid additional money by U.S. Soccer for their play in both the NWSL and international circuit.

“We continue to try and take things up each year, we have successfully [increased salaries] each year,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said during a national conference call Wednesday. “We know that there’s certainly more to be done, especially at the lower end of the pay scale.”

The league also announced Wednesday that it will partner with Fox Sports to air NWSL games for the second straight year. The deal is not exclusive and is just a six-game package (three regular season, three playoffs), which leaves room for other distributors to provide television coverage.