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The evolution, and questionable necessity, of the NWSL Challenge Cup

© Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off tonight as 10 of the National Women’s Soccer League’s 12 teams take the pitch in yet another variation of the ever-evolving tournament. The tournament has undergone some major changes since its inception as a way for the league to get back on the pitch during the COVID-19 pandemic and 2023 is no exception.

As we look ahead to kickoff later this evening, let’s take a quick look at how the Challenge Cup has evolved in 2023 and what the purpose of the tournament actually is — if there even is one.

Scheduling woes (mostly) fixed

For the first time, the 2023 Challenge Cup will be running concurrently with the NWSL regular season. This is a major change after two years of it being played as a preseason tournament that not only drastically delayed the start of the regular season, but also created scheduling debacles. For example, in 2022, OL Reign was the best-performing team in the Challenge Cup but lost the home-field advantage to the Washington Spirit because their stadium wasn’t available. The Spirit then advanced to the finals and received a higher monetary bonus as a result.

The biggest impact of playing concurrently with the regular season, however, is that it helps solve the ever-present problem that comes with the NWSL playing during the summer and not aligning with FIFA’s major tournament schedule. In the past, the league would just play through the World Cup much to the chagrin of players, who didn’t like missing regular season matches and teams who didn’t like dealing with heavily depleted rosters. Now, the league will only be playing Challenge Cup matches from July 10 through Aug. 17 which covers the bulk of the World Cup.

There’s no question that this is a vast improvement over previous years and will be much more acceptable for players and their clubs. It doesn’t penalize clubs for having a high number of international players and it provides a nice financial incentive for those who stay at home.

Still, in an already long season, the Challenge Cup does bleed into the regular season schedule outside of the World Cup. Each team will have at least three mid-week matches added to their schedule from April to May, meaning some teams will be forced to play three games in nine days at least once. For teams playing this week, the three games in nine or 10 days come on the back of an international break where a significant portion of players played up to two games, sometimes on a completely different continent. This dense schedule gives clubs very little time to practice, as noted by a very displeased Casey Stoney, head coach of the San Diego Wave, earlier this week. It also raises serious concerns about player fatigue and management for a tournament that ultimately has no bearing on the regular season.

This begs the question: Why should clubs risk overusing players at all for the Challenge Cup? The answer to that is all in the prize pool.

Double the money

Last week, it was announced the Challenge Cup prize pool has been doubled by title sponsor UKG and now equals $1 million, making it the first prize pool of this size in U.S. women’s league-soccer. While it’s not yet been explained how this pool will be broken down, last year’s winners, the North Carolina Courage, received $10,000 per player, the runners-up received $5,000 per player, and the semifinalists got $1,500 per player. So it’s reasonable to assume that if the entire pool has been doubled, these numbers could be doubled as well.

This is a massive amount of money in the NWSL. In an interview with Attacking Third podcast, defender Carson Pickett, who won the Challenge Cup last year with the Courage, called last year’s $10,000 “life-changing” and reminded listeners that when she first joined the league less than a decade ago, minimum salaries were only $7,000 for an entire season. In 2023, the minimum salary for the league is still only $36,400, so a potential prize of $20,000 for the winners or even $10,000 for the runners-up is a massive incentive.

While any increase in funding for women’s soccer should be celebrated, is the Challenge Cup really the best place to invest it? Kudos to UKG for committing to raising the bar, but the only problem is the bar is now raised above the prize pool for the regular season champions or NWSL Shield winners, at least for the time being. In 2022, the team with the best regular season record won $10,000 from Shield sponsors CarMax, while the league champions earned $10,000 from the league. Other sponsors — and the league — will need to step up to keep the Challenge Cup prize money from dwarfing the regular season awards and there’s currently no indication that that’s in the works.

This is another case of the NWSL letting sponsors call the shots which create questionable imbalances in priorities. Of course, it’s unquestionably good that the NWSL is getting sponsors like UKG who are willing to donate this level of money at all, but the league needs to be better about channeling it into avenues that at least make some more sense.

Having a side tournament offer possibly double the amount of money earned by winning the league is, frankly, absurd and will possibly impact how teams prioritize their schedules. After all, players will understandably want a shot at winning the biggest possible bonus they can make all year, but that puts a lot of pressure on clubs to manage players in a way that keeps them healthy for the regular season as well amidst the dense schedule described above.

Because outside of the prize money won by players, what exactly does the Challenge Cup offer? What is its actual purpose? That’s not a very easy question to answer.

The big why

The reason the Challenge Cup was started is obvious. It was a necessary way for the NWSL to get back on the pitch during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it was a huge success! Not only did the bubble environment work successfully with zero COVID transmissions, but the NWSL had the important distinction of being the first professional league in the United States to get back on the field.

Since then, the Challenge Cup has continued as an add-on of sorts to the regular season, but there’s no clear reason why it has continued to exist at all. It adds a minimum of six games to the season and because the tournament is played in divisions comprised of four teams, it can get tiresome for fans to see the same few opponents at least four times over the course of the season — twice in the regular season and twice again in the Challenge Cup.

Because the Challenge Cup, unlike England’s Continental Cup or the men’s domestic U.S. Open Cup, is a single-league tournament. While the other two tournaments offer the thrill of a lower-division team earning a shocking victory over a first-division opponent, the Challenge Cup is just the same group of teams playing each other yet again for no reason except to earn some extra cash.

The argument that it can serve as a way for teams to continue to play during the World Cup or Olympics without disrupting the regular season also doesn’t fully hold water because what does that mean for years with no major international tournament? It’s a great help in 2023, but when will it be played in 2024? Should it even exist in non-FIFA tournament years? It’s hard to say.

The best argument for continuing the Challenge Cup beyond giving players another chance to increase their earnings is so it can serve as a placeholder for a Conti Cup-style tournament that doesn’t yet exist. With a second-division league coming in 2024 in the form of the USL Super League, the possibility of different leagues competing in a bigger tournament isn’t that far off. Maybe the Challenge Cup can serve as a way to work out some of the scheduling kinks ahead of time so a future inter-league tournament can run more smoothly. But until that happens, the idea of the tournament instead comes across as an unnecessary relic of the past that no longer serves a purpose.

Things to look for

Tonight 10 of 12 teams take the field in the first Challenge Cup match of the season with only Racing Louisville and the Chicago Red Stars getting a bye week. Interestingly enough, this will be the first time all season any of these 10 teams face their opponents, so it’ll be a decent test of strength ahead of the regular season.

With most teams also playing games this weekend, it’ll be interesting to see how clubs approach these matches. Do they go all out and make a run for the prize money or do they use this as an opportunity to test their depth? There’s almost certainly going to be some rotation just based on game density but whether or not teams choose to rotate for Wednesday or next weekend has yet to be seen.

For example, the Portland Thorns may feel they face a tougher opponent in their Challenge Cup match against the San Diego Wave than Saturday’s regular-season opponent Racing Louisville. Maybe they play their starters against the Wave in a bid to get a leg up in the Challenge Cup before losing a large number of players to the World Cup and play their bench against Racing, a club that has never won against the Thorns. It’s hard to say.

For other teams like the Kansas City Current or Orlando Pride, who have struggled so far in the regular season, these matches might also provide a chance to test out new formations and tactics to see if they can solve some of their lingering issues. How some of these currently weaker teams take advantage of the clean slate provided by the tournament might influence their approach to these games and might make them more interesting as a result.

Finally, The Equalizer‘s Jeff Kassouf was the first to break the news that star midfielder Julie Ertz has signed with Angel City. It’s possible she could make her debut with the club tonight, but that seems unlikely. At least, it’s unlikely she’ll get the start. After being away with the U.S. national team during the international break last week, she hasn’t had any time to practice with the team so throwing her out on the pitch only a few days after signing is unlikely. She may get a few minutes, but it’s far more likely she’ll make her debut this weekend against the San Diego Wave.

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