The National Women's Soccer League is back. We now know when the regular season starts as the schedule was released Wednesday -- fans have long had a Groundhog Day level of anticipation for it, which arrives later and later each year. The season kicks off April 29 with Angel City FC hosting the North Carolina Courage. However, the third annual NWSL Challenge Cup starts on Friday, so let's talk about that instead.
What is the NWSL Challenge Cup? Why is there a tournament before the regular season? Great questions! Here is everything you need to know about the NWSL's tournament before the season, including how it works and who you should bet on if you're willing to risk your money on a league as unpredictable as the NWSL.
What is the NWSL Challenge Cup and how did it start?
In 2020, when the sports world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Challenge Cup was devised as a bubble-style tournament in lieu of a normal regular season. All the teams in the NWSL flew to Utah, where they were regularly tested for COVID-19. (One team, the Orlando Pride, never made it to Utah due to a COVID outbreak within the squad prior to leaving Florida.)
With the Challenge Cup, the NWSL was the first major sports league to return to play during the pandemic in the United States -- no small feat -- and the event was a huge success. After more than 2,000 tests, no players tested positive inside the bubble, and the tournament drew the NWSL's highest TV ratings since the league debuted in 2013.
OK, so why is the NWSL hosting the Challenge Cup in 2022 if there's still a regular season planned?
By 2021, with vaccines rolling out and better strategies to mitigate the pandemic, the NWSL was ready to go back to having a normal regular season. But the league also didn't want to let go of the Challenge Cup. Not only was it a ratings hit, but it helped bring a slew of sponsors into the league and let's face it: Americans love tournaments.
The NWSL, of course, already has a tournament at the end of the season for the playoffs to reach the NWSL championship, but what's better than one tournament? Two tournaments! The drama of a high-stakes prize proved too irresistible for the NWSL, so after bringing the Challenge Cup back in 2021 -- with the Portland Thorns taking the 2021 prize on penalties over NJ/NY Gotham FC -- it's back again this year.
There has been some debate among NWSL fans about when is the best time to stage the Challenge Cup. Some advocate for a summer tournament, which would fit nicely during the World Cup and Olympics so the NWSL can keep going during those high-profile events, while allowing teams to have their national team stars for regular-season games. The NWSL has opted to avoid disruptions during the regular season and stage the Challenge Cup beforehand.
What's the format and how does it work?
In previous years, the Challenge Cup was split into two five-team groups -- one for the east, one for the west -- and each team played everyone else once. From there, the top finishers in each group appeared in the final.
Now that the NWSL has expanded to 12 teams for the 2022 season with Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC joining the league, the Challenge Cup format has changed and added an extra round of competition. The league will be divided into three four-team groups for the east, central and west regions. The top finishers of each group will advance to the semifinals, plus the best second-place finisher across all three groups, and then the winners head to the final.
Tiebreakers will be goal differential first, then most goals scored -- and then four other complicated factors that will hopefully not be necessary. If teams are still tied after all that, the NWSL will draw lots, but it probably won't come to that. If the semifinals or final end in a tie after 90 minutes, there will be no extra time and the match will move immediately to penalty kicks.
So, is it part of the preseason then? Or is it a real tournament?
It really depends on who -- and how -- you ask.
There's no doubt that the NWSL team owners and broadcast partners are positioning the Challenge Cup as a legitimate tournament. The NWSL is full of competitive players and coaches who want to win every trophy possible, so when asked by journalists they generally say they are in it to win it. Whoever gets the Challenge Cup trophy will certainly use it for bragging rights.
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But let's be realistic. After the Challenge Cup ends in May, there will be another five months of the regular season to go (give or take) and the Challenge Cup is not the time for teams to risk everything to push for the trophy. After a long offseason, players are still getting back into a rhythm with one another and back to full fitness individually, so the Challenge Cup is a way to ease into the swing of things.
Also, consider the two expansion teams, Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC -- the Challenge Cup will be their first time playing a competitive game ever. For those two teams, the Challenge Cup is going to be more about figuring out what they've got than trying to win a trophy. As Alex Morgan, a striker for the Wave, quipped with a smirk in a recent news conference: "It's been a long preseason, and obviously the Challenge Cup will continue as part of the preseason..." That's how you set the right expectations.
What are the groups?
Who are the favorites?
First, a caveat: the Challenge Cup is ripe for upsets and unpredictability because teams haven't had a chance to fully build cohesion after offseason shuffling, and a lot of teams this year will be playing under new coaches who have not yet figured out how they want their teams to play.
Last year, five different male NWSL coaches were ousted after allegations of inappropriate conduct: Rory Dames in Chicago, Paul Riley in North Carolina, Christy Holly in Louisville, Richie Burke in Washington and Farid Benstiti in Seattle. It was part of a reckoning that players within the league and involved in the NWSL Players Association hope will lead to lasting changes that ensure player safety. But the league also saw some turnover as longtime coaches in Portland (Mark Parsons) and Orlando (Marc Skinner) left for jobs in Europe.
The Thorns look like a favorite because they won last year's Challenge Cup and the NWSL Shield, but they've got a new coach, Rhian Wilkinson, who is new to the NWSL. The Red Stars reached the NWSL championship in November, but they too have a new coach, Chris Petrucelli, after Dames resigned within 48 hours of the final.
The Spirit look like the best bet: they won the NWSL Championship last fall and, although they were one of the teams that had a coach exit over alleged inappropriate conduct, he left in August and the Spirit are sticking with Kris Ward, the interim who replaced Burke. Their roster has remained intact as well, including stars like Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch, Andi Sullivan and Kelley O'Hara.
Gotham and North Carolina aren't the favorites on paper -- both have new head coaches after they promoted assistants coming into this season -- but because of the unpredictability of the Challenge Cup, they could well sneak through and win it all.
Who is not worth betting on?
There's no reason to believe that Angel City and San Diego can't become title contenders in the NWSL with the personnel and the resources they have, but there's also no reason to believe those benefits will come instantly. Expansion teams historically struggle out the gate, and both teams will need some time for everything to come together.
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The Kansas City Current and Racing Louisville were the worst two teams in the NWSL last year, but they also came in as expansion teams. They may be better positioned for 2022 after learning some tough lessons last season -- the Current in particular added some big names, including forward Lynn Williams, midfielder Samantha Mewis and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. But it's hard to see them going from worst to first so quickly.
The Orlando Pride finished 2021 in terrible form, losing five straight, and they're coming into 2022 with a new coach to the NWSL, Amanda Cromwell, and assistant coach Michelle Akers. They also have seen roster turnover -- attackers Morgan and Taylor Kornieck went to San Diego, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defender Ali Krieger went to Gotham, among others. This is a new group that may warrant optimism, but it's a wildcard right now and might need some time.