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7 ways to spice up the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup

What will the reward be for the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup winner?

Firstly, they will lift a trophy that does not look like an oversized spatula (perhaps an actual cup!). But once this improvised tournament ends on July 26, what will it actually mean for that team going forward?

The winner will not be the ‘2020 NWSL champion’ in any traditional sense, though they will have some bragging rights. This year, for the league and the world, is the furthest thing from normal. It will be referred to with an asterisk throughout the league’s history.

Truthfully, it’s difficult to answer what the tournament will mean when it’s unclear whether there will be any further competition in the fall (which seems unlikely). Operating under the premise that the Challenge Cup is the only NWSL soccer we’ll be getting in 2020, why not have a little fun with it?

Winner gets a 2021 playoff berth

Hear me out: The NWSL is expected to have at least 10 teams in 2021. Without getting into exhausting expansion speculation, we at least know for sure that Louisville is already confirmed as team No. 10.

So, make the 2021 playoffs a five-team tournament with a play-in round. The 2020 Challenge Cup winner gets one of the five bids, joining the top four teams from the 2021 standings. The Challenge Cup winner would be either the 2021 wild-card team or a top-four seed, whichever is the higher of the earned places. They are the No. 1 seed if they win the Shield in 2021… or the No. 3 seed if they finish third, etc. Everyone behind them bumps back a slot. But if they finish eighth in 2021, they still make the playoffs but as the wild card, No. 5 seed.

That doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the 2021 season; it keeps the top four teams, minimum, in the playoffs (and odds are favorable that the Challenge Cup winner would be in the top five next year, anyway). It also takes the league’s playoffs, which have since inception been a very short affair of semifinal weekend followed by a final, and creates additional games. That’s good for the league, which needs more marquee events, and it’s good for its sponsors and TV partners.

Having a wild-card No. 4 vs. No. 5 game before the semifinal round would be the easiest and simplest way to achieve this. Women’s Professional Soccer’s past playoff structure provides another, more complicated blueprint. Perhaps the wild-card round is No. 2 vs. No. 5, and No. 3 vs. No. 4. Those two winners advance to a super semifinal, with the winner of that game advancing to face the Shield winner on at the No. 1 seed’s venue. Reward the Shield winner with rest and a home game that you have time to sell. Add an extra game in the process. Try something innovative.

Why Utah, starting late June, was the NWSL’s choice for the 2020 Challenge Cup

Slap down some money

Beyond playoff berths, there should also be a cash prize for a tournament. Good luck to anyone trying to accurately predict what the American economy will look like by the end of the year, but we do know this: There is significant sponsorship money tied up in this 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

Yes, that is largely (and perhaps entirely, depending on who you talk to) going to covering the expenses of Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen, who told the Salt Lake Tribune that he was putting up $700,000 to make the event happen. And yes, players already secured full salaries and benefits for the rest of the year regardless of whether an individual participates in the Challenge Cup.

Still, this tournament doesn’t happen without the sign-off of players — plenty of whom are making league-minimum salaries of $20,000 annually. To quarantine and play soccer during a pandemic! Kicking in a couple-grand-per-player/coach/staff bonus for the winning team would be pennies to these big companies. Do it! The PR will pay it back, if anyone listening needs a less altruistic motivation.

Extra protection from expansion

Give the 2020 Challenge Cup winner one extra (non-U.S. federation) player to protect in the expansion draft. Allowing for one extra protected player rewards a team effort during this uncertain time, and preventing that from being a U.S. federation player means the idea isn’t totally unfair if one of the more stacked teams wins this Challenge Cup, since Louisville will be relying on plucking a top player or two from one of those teams to build around. It’s a nice, interesting perk with very little imbalance.

How about some allocation money?

We know that there are very select ways that a team can access more than $300,000 in allocation money for its roster, including $100,000 for losing a U.S. player in an expansion draft. So, why not allow the Challenge Cup winner the ability to dip a little deeper into the purse. Nothing crazy. $50,000 for winning?

I’d like to see this at both ends of the spectrum, too: Whichever poor team finishes ninth in July also gets additional spending limits for 2021, to try to level the playing field. No rewards for mediocrity! But maybe for the sorry bottom-feeders.

(I know what y’all are thinking: What about the 2021 NWSL College Draft? If the league doesn’t play again in 2020, I don’t know how you don’t make the Challenge Cup order of finish mimic the 2021 draft order — with Louisville picking first, of course. How else would you determine that?)

Questions remain for some NWSL players undecided on Challenge Cup participation

Challenge Cup semifinalists go regional

North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley wants to see a cup competition like the Challenge Cup every year going forward. He also thinks there’s a chance to tap into the growing Mexican women’s soccer market by creating a tournament which combines NWSL teams and Liga MX Femenil teams. MLS and Liga MX already have a growing relationship with significant financial interest.

Let’s stop talking about these great ideas (still waiting on FIFA to get that Women’s Club World Cup going) and actually do them. Start it small: Four NWSL teams, four Liga MX Femenil teams. Tournament in 2021. The 2020 Challenge Cup semifinalists get berths. Play it in Houston.

The same could be said here about this summer’s NWSL winner getting a birth to the International Champions Cup, which also needs to expand its pool of teams and games to legitimize itself.

“I feel like this is the start of something,” Riley told The Equalizer about the 2020 Challenge Cup. “I think Lisa [Baird, NWSL commissioner] is really into this environment type of thing, and I like it. I like a cup environment. It does test the nerves a bit and it makes our players better.

“That’s the main thing; these cup ties make players better. People don’t understand that. They need that pressure of knowing that the game’s on the line; [it’s] not just another soccer game, not just another result. I think that’s the really important part of it.”

League cup every year

Establishing a Women’s Open Cup to get amateur teams facing off against NWSL sides would be spectacular. Logistically, that still feels quite a way off, financially and logistically. Among the biggest hurdles is that second tier of women’s soccer in the U.S. is basically a two-month season when players are home from college.

There’s no reason that the foundation for that can’t be laid with a yearly league cup, though. Play a full league season, as always, and play a league cup in the middle of it — perhaps truncated into a week or two in the summer at one location such as an untapped market thinking about getting into the league. There’s no better market research than actually hosting games like that and gauging interest.

In the long run, that kind of tournament could even become a second-chance effort for a team to earn a playoff berth like the aforementioned wild-card. The NBA recently flirted with this idea. Give the fans of that eighth-place team in late July a reason tostay engaged by putting a playoff berth on the line.

What’s more, it’s another event that the league can sell to sponsors, TV partners and maybe even prospective markets. Done right, it also wouldn’t sacrifice the integrity of the regular season.

“I think cup competitions are always exciting,” Sky Blue FC head coach Freya Coombe said. “Coming from England, where we have the magic of the FA Cup, as they always say, it’s always nice to see cup competitions in a short competition format. But obviously, there’s nothing to replace a league season where performances are rewarded after a long period of time, and it’s those teams that are consistently performing should be quite rightly rewarded for their efforts. So, I think it’s nice. I think it’s great that we can get something out of this season, but it’s nothing to replace a full league season, which is obviously really enjoyable.”

You have to start somewhere. This isn’t the 2020 that the NWSL envisioned, but if the league is as “nimble” as it says it is, it will adapt to the current world.

Questions and answers about the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup

All-Star skills competition

Hosting an all-star game or skills competition was second only to the ‘make a reality TV show’ request in out informal questionnaire of fans last week. The 2020 Challenge Cup is already a grueling schedule, so adding another game to it isn’t happening. That said, a creative all-star game is another event the league can sell. (WPS was the first to do the pick-’em format, before the NHL, when they did Team Abby vs. Team Marta in 2010 in greater Atlanta.)

A skills competition is far less demanding, though, especially if you were to hold it between the quarterfinals and semifinals, only utilizing players from the five eliminated teams.

Sure, current plans seem to call for those teams to head home once eliminated. The Challenge Cup is an imperfect and ambitious solution to a challenging time. Some of the finer details continue to be sorted out, which tells me there is room for improvisation. A skills competition would once again require further buy-in from players, and they should get paid something to participate, but it’s also something that I’d bet some would be excited to take part in if they were taken care of (without a doubt during a time that isn’t a pandemic). Crossbar challenge, target practice, keeper wars: We’re talking about a couple hours, max, of light activity for the actual competition.

NWSL LIVEFeaturing Lori Lindsey and Jeff KassoufHosted by Jordan AngeliOn today's show:SPECIAL EDITION We talk live and in depth with NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird about the 2020 Challenge Cup NWSL Veteran and member of the NWSLPA Tori Huster joins us for our 'Why You Play" segmentWe take questions and look into what is happening around NWSLMake sure to comment and ask questions because your comments could be used on the stream!

Posted by National Women's Soccer League on Thursday, May 28, 2020


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