Usually, on the Tuesday after the National Women’s Soccer League crowns a champion, The Lowdown column reviews the year that was for the prevailing team and attempts to find the turning points in their seasons. Things being as they are, with the entire NWSL Challenge Cup having occurred in the Utah bubble without much media, this year’s take will be a general overview of a tournament that once seemed like a reach and quickly became the envy of the sports world and left fans clamoring for more.
I. This thing worked
Whether you enjoyed the soccer or had to resist falling asleep during three straight 0-0 quarterfinals, the NWSL Challenge Cup worked. Those who committed to play, which was an overwhelming majority of players in the league, were clearly in it for the right reasons. And even when the quality of soccer suffered for a variety of reasons, the effort was tremendous. Fan bases around the country engaged. Media that traditionally ignore women’s club soccer had voids to fill and seemed to realize they could discuss the tournament without turning into pumpkins.
More importantly, there were no confirmed positive COVID-19 tests reported inside the bubble. Yes, the Orlando Pride had to withdraw due to a slew of initial positives within their team, and the overall analysis of the event should not overlook that. But those Pride positives were while the club was still in Orlando (and almost all of them turned out to be false). Considering the lack of positive results in Utah, it was surely the correct decision to keep the Pride out of there.
II. Do it again? Maybe
The Challenge Cup has whet the appetite of many NWSL fans to see some sort of similar competition on an annual basis. If 100 NWSL fans were surveyed on the matter, I would be surprised if even one of them gave a flat ‘no’ to some sort of future knockout competition among the clubs. The issue is how to do it.
There is no ideal world where all of the league’s players congregate in one city for a month, so anything regular would have to mimic the U.S. Open Cup. In fact, isn’t a Women’s Open Cup long overdue? It probably is, but consider that it would require teams to add travel and minutes on thin rosters and tight budgets. I still believe the best idea for the short run is to play early rounds during FIFA weeks where groups of teams congregate in different locations and play two rounds. The final and perhaps semifinals could stand alone.
Keep in mind also that U.S. Soccer runs the Men’s Open Cup and not Major League Soccer, and also that a true Open Cup is open to teams from lower divisions. But one way or another, as an Open Cup or just a future NWSL Challenge Cup among league teams, let’s hope this was the start of something and not just a one-off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
III. More Rachel Daly please
To this point, an overwhelming majority of the marketing surrounding the NWSL has been focused on prominent United States national team players. That is likely to continue. But there is really nothing to not like about Rachel Daly, and my guess is that unless the Dash stink in 2021, putting some marketing energy into her would pay dividends for the league.
Daly is the complete package. She is very good, she plays in the attacking third of the field, and is not even remotely hesitant to mix it up with opponents despite her relatively diminutive stature. Beyond that, watching the Challenge Cup, it is quite clear the Dash march to the beat of Rachel Daly. Her leadership role within the team is palpable even over a digital stream. She was the MVP and Golden Boot winner of this event. Let’s show fans new and old just how good she is.
And if you’re snickering about the idea of marketing an English player, just think about whose coattails the MLS boom was dragging on.
IV. Lisa Baird, getting things done
Lisa Baird impressed me from the moment she was introduced as NWSL commissioner in February, and again during the SheBelieves Cup at Red Bull Arena when she deescalated what could have been a tense back-and-forth with reporters to have some casual chatter — all while reminding everyone she hadn’t even officially started yet.
The Challenge Cup took the Baird era to another level. Beyond just the fact that it happened, Baird showed a deft ability to balance business with an ability to relate to the fan base. Not too many sports commissioners make appearances on playground slides, but even fewer can appear so comfortable doing it.
And along the way, Baird closed the deal to bring Angel City on board as a 2022 expansion team. As noted in an earlier column, the NWSL was announcing expansion while the rest of the sports world was scrambling. If I had to put money on it, I’ll say the Challenge Cup under Baird leads to more direct sponsorship dollars for the NWSL than U.S. World Cup wins did under Jeff Plush and Amanda Duffy.
V. The CBS coverage was tremendous
CBS got more than they bargained for when they agreed to the deal to show NWSL games for three years. They made good on year one with a solid broadcast that included pre- and post-game shows and lots of written content on their site. They also unveiled themselves without the streaming issues that plagued go90 in the opening weeks back in 2017.
The tournament also showed how valuable knowledgeable and dedicated broadcasters are to promoting a league. Jenn Hildreth has been a WoSo staple for a decade and was excellent as usual on the opening game (with the always great analyst Aly Wagner) and final. Mike Watts handled the rest with a one-off assist from Josh Tolle (who called a majority of the games for the international audience on Twitch). Watts blended his usual enthusiasm with a searing knowledge of the teams, the players, and their histories. He was joined throughout the tournament by analyst Lori Lindsey, who brought years of insight. This matters, folks. It makes the broadcasts feel that much more special and it lures in fans, even if there aren’t any specific numbers to prove this.
Marisa Pilla worked the sideline for all 23 matches and managed to get nuggets of information during all of them.
The behind-the-scenes work was also important. If you heard an interesting stat during a game it likely came from Jen Cooper (sometimes via yours truly), who was the analyst on Twitch. And every match was produced by Sharni Yerke, who I can personally attest is a gem to work with and makes every broadcast better.
Writer’s note: I have worked with everyone listed above as part of the NWSL broadcast team in 2019 and hope to again in 2021.
VII. The media coverage
My colleagues in the media, notably at The Equalizer but also around the country and even overseas, have never churned out more or better content about a women’s pro soccer league. CBS went and found Sandra Herrera, who already had credibility with many fans and likely gained it with others through CBS All Access appearances and through her written work.
Some outlets will undoubtedly and understandably be focused elsewhere for the coming months and may have less of a presence when the NWSL appears again. But if even a fraction of major media outlets realize that quality coverage of a quality league gets attention, that will be a very good thing.
VIII. And they did it all despite…
The incredible media coverage of the Challenge Cup happened despite some wild hurdles when it came to accessing coaches and players. Many of those were created by the pandemic which did not allow any in-person one-on-ones (most media stayed home anyway). But some of it was the product of the NWSL spending its first seven years failing to implement and execute reasonable media standards. Nobody wants to hear the media whine, but know that your coverage could be even stronger if these hurdles could be overcome.
IX. Were the stars missed?
Yes and no for me. Think about the offensive quality that was missing from the tournament – Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath (also injured) opted out, while Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh were injured. Add in Marta, whose team never made it to Utah, and Sam Kerr, who left the league for England over the winter, and it helps explain away your three scoreless draws in 36 hours in the quarterfinals.
At the same time, it did not feel like they were specifically missed. Heath wasn’t with the Thorns but rookie Morgan Weaver scored one of the most dramatic goals in the club’s history to knock off the mighty North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals. Dash fans became enamored with Kristie Mewis and Shea Groom. Others like Jennifer Cudjoe, Bianca St. Georges, and Bella Bixby all left fans wanting more.
For those who were not in Utah, no one will be turning them away at the door upon their return, but maybe — just maybe — this brings the realization that the NWSL runs much deeper than its top stars.
X. My personal Best XI
Goalkeeper – Bella Bixby
Defenders – Jaelene Daniels, Abby Erceg, Julie Ertz, Haley Hanson
Midfielders – Debinha, Kristie Mewis, Lindsey Horan
Forwards – Rachel Daly, Amy Rodriguez, Lynn Williams
**-Megan Oyster doesn’t make my Best XI but she actually played the entire final with fractured ribs. Can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that must be.
XI. What about the coaches…
The NWSL coaching club had a good tournament as well. When Daly got off the plane in Houston, she evidently greeted James Clarkson’s wife by shouting, “You married a legend!” When Clarkson got the Dash job, he had to overcome culture and talent, and he managed to ship out the right players and bring in ones that would help, like Groom, Oyster, and Katie Naughton.
The Red Stars lost the final and were dreadful at times, but Rory Dames used the free-roll in the preliminary stage better than anyone and discovered Bianca St. Georges along the way.
Freya Coombe probably has a ways to go tactically, but Sky Blue FC recovered from a no-show performance against the Utah Royals to be competitive the rest of the way and darn near erased 3-0 deficit against the Red Stars in the semifinals.
Craig Harrington looks to have something going in Utah, but he needs a better roster.
Meanwhile, Paul Riley rarely leaves room for second-guessers, but he did so in Utah. Good teams lose, of course, but watching the Courage chase the game late against the Thorns in their quarterfinal loss, it was impossible not to wonder of Riley overused his best players during the preliminary stage.
BONUS: To all who contributed
From the players to the coaches, broadcasters, team employees, stadium workers, and everyone else who contributed to helping make the NWSL Challenge Cup a reality – thank you!