The National Women’s Soccer League will play another Challenge Cup in 2021, prior to the start of the 24-game regular season, and the league will expand its playoff field for the first time since its inaugural season in 2013.
The NWSL announced its 2021 competition formats on Wednesday, including details of a six-team playoff field in November which will see the top two seeds from the regular season receive byes into the semifinals. The NWSL Championship will be played on the weekend of Nov. 20, 2021, the latest in history and a week later than the weekend the 2020 final was supposed to be played. That game — and the 2020 regular season — was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the NWSL played a month-long Challenge Cup in Utah and a short Fall Series.
Coaches and players across the league this summer spoke of their desire to hold an annual cup competition following the relative success of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, which made the league the first U.S. team sports league to return to competition during the pandemic. The Challenge Cup, with its forgiving format of all eight teams advancing to the knockout stage and adapted substitution rules, allowed for teams to give players valuable minutes that they otherwise don’t typically receive during the compact regular season in which every point counts.
“This is the kind of setting you need to get your younger players time in meaningful games and to put them out in situations where there is something on the line and winning and losing does matter,” Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames said in July. “It’s really hard to do that in the league where every point is so important through a 24-game season, but having a platform like this certainly would allow you to use the lower end of your roster more, speed up the development of the players that you have and most importantly, get you more teachable moments and film on your players to be able to help them grow and develop.”
In 2021, the Challenge Cup will serve as an appetizer to the regular season. NWSL players will report to their respective teams for training camp on Feb. 1 ahead of a mid-April Challenge Cup kickoff. The 24-team regular season will then begin in mid-May, working around the rescheduled Olympics in summer 2021.
“Based on guidance from the NWSL Medical Taskforce and public health authorities, the 2021 Challenge Cup will take place in multiple bubble environments, team markets, or some combination of the two,” the NWSL stated in a press release. A league spokesperson clarified to The Equalizer that, as of right now, each team will play three or four games in the Challenge Cup and the two group winners will advance directly to a championship game. Teams will play four games if they are in bubble sites or three games if they play in local markets.
The Challenge Cup will be a standalone competition. One league source said there was some discussion of the Challenge Cup winner earning a playoff berth later in the year — a concept similar to one proposed by The Equalizer earlier this year — but that didn’t pass. Instead, six of the 10 teams — with the addition of Racing Louisville FC — will make the playoffs. There is no further detail as of now on what the reward will be for the Challenge Cup winner.
“Bringing back the Challenge Cup is an opportunity for our league to continue growing our fan base and showcase our world class players with an exciting and competitive tournament ahead of the most important international tournament on the 2021 calendar, the Olympic Games,” said NWSL chief revenue officer Mitch Poll. “We’re focused on continuing to build opportunities to expand our reach, expose a global audience to the best women’s club soccer in the world, and provide meaningful opportunities for our teams and players to perform.”