The NWSL Challenge Cup has come down to three more matches before the competition is put on mothballs for 2024. With two new teams making for an expanded regular season in 2024 plus plans to shutter the league for the Olympic Games, the National Women’s Soccer League will bring down the curtain on the Challenge Cup following Wednesday’s semifinals and Saturday’s championship match. A one-off will be played ahead of next year’s regular season between the winners of the Cup and NWSL Championship.
“It’s pros and cons if I’m honest,” San Diego Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney said following the club’s final Challenge Cup match on Aug. 5.
The Challenge Cup was created in 2020 when the league was shut down with the rest of the world as humanity tried to come to grips with the COVID-19 virus. With no charter travel and little appetite for playing in front of empty stands, a month-long tournament was created inside a bubble organized near Salt Lake City. New television partner CBS went all-in and NWSL brought in new fans with the tournament.
The soccer itself had its ups and downs. The original format called for eight of the then nine clubs to advance out of group play to a quarterfinal stage, but then a mini outbreak prevented the Orlando Pride from joining the bubble and so everyone went through to knockout matches. That allowed the Thorns — 0-3-1 in the group — to oust the Courage, who were not only two-time NWSL champions at the time but who had rolled through group play with four wins by an aggregate 7-1. The Thorns’ 1-0 win saw the only goal scored across four quarterfinals with the other three all going to penalties after scoreless draws (there was no extra time).
Off the pitch, the inaugural Challenge Cup could not have gone better. During the July 4 match between the Dash and Reign, viewers were treated to fireworks in the distance beyond Zions Bank Stadium. A playground next to the pitch provided some entertaining celebrations and even the commissioner Lisa Baird took a turn going down the slide.
In the end, the Houston Dash were crowned Challenge Cup champions, a shining light for an organization that has yet to find any success in the playoffs. It was not what anyone had imagined for the 2020 season but the Challenge Cup had salvaged what could have been a year-long shutdown that a league like NWSL may not have been able to rebound from.
The event was successful enough that it was brought back for 2021 but with a peculiar twist. There had been near universal praise for the Challenge Cup, with calls to sprinkle it into the season like the men’s U.S. Open Cup. But in 2021 the league decided to open the season by playing the Challenge Cup in its entirety before playing any regular season matches.
There was good reason for the odd scheduling. For one, teams had barely played for more than a year with only the Challenge Cup and four-game Fall Series (which many players skipped) to account for 2020. More importantly, COVID vaccines were rolling out. By pushing the start of the regular season back, the NWSL was taking out a free insurance policy against having to delay the season either because of an outbreak or a vaccine mandate they could not meet. Sure it made for odd franchise openers for Racing Louisville FC and the Kansas City Current—whose owners swooped in to scoop up the remains of the Utah Royals franchise that went from hosting the 2020 Challenge Cup to persona non grata in a matter of months—but the decision was a wise one.
Doubling down on said format in 2022 is where things began to go off the rails for the Challenge Cup. This time there was no reason to play a full slate of Cup games plus semifinals and finals before the regular season. Furthermore, the new teams prompted the league to play three groups of four in double round-robin format (2021 was two groups of 5 playing single round robin.) There was also the small matter of the schedule not fitting. To fix this, the NWSL decided it was a good idea to schedule the final on the Saturday of Week 2. That meant four teams would have to reschedule those matches for later in the season. It was a case study in how not to generate opening day buzz. Angel City FC got it right though. The expansion side hosted Challenge Cup matches at Call State Fullerton before a gala home opener that kicked off the regular season.
By this time Jessica Berman had taken over for Baird who resigned in disgrace in the summer of 2021 for her role in squashing complaints that eventually took down Paul Riley and turned the league on its ear. Berman fielded many questions about a schedule she knew was flawed but had no part in crafting. She handled them all gracefully and could only say the problem would be fixed. And it was.
Enter 2023. This time the calendar started with the regular season. The Challenge Cup was reduced to filler, first on midweeks during the season, and then as a bridge while NWSL went mostly dark during the World Cup. This week’s knockout matches come on another week with no regular season matches. A longer space between the semifinals and final for planning purposes would be nice, but at least no one has to move games around the calendar.
“There’s more games for more minutes for more players,” Stoney said. “Especially when you’re going through a developmental stage with players. You can get players minutes. That’s been valuable for us this year, to try and get players into rhythm and minutes ahead of World Cup windows.”
Stoney added that she would prefer that NWSL stop playing during any international window. And she won’t miss the double round-robin group format that returned in 2023.
“I’m not gonna miss playing Reign four times, Angel City four times and Portland four times to be honest,” she stated.
We were all wondering what would come of the Challenge Cup in a 14-team league next season. Two groups of seven could have kept the same number of matches and reduced group play to single round robin. A straight knockout event with this year’s trophy winners getting buys would have been another. Taking some matches to neutral sites was another idea to help the league spread its wings a bit.
In the end, the final match will be played early next year, and then the Challenge Cup will be no more. Hopefully the title sponsor, UKG, hangs around and redirects its financial support. And maybe, just maybe, a proper women’s Open Cup will be part of the landscape one day. Until then, so long Challenge Cup. You were fun. Most of the time.
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