by Tim Antoniewicz
Concerns with the Challenge Cup Format
The first Challenge Cup took place in 2020 in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to these restrictions and the lack of a regular season, the tournament took place in a bubble. In 2021, the Delta variant spooked the NWSL. At the time, serious doubt surrounded the start of the regular season. The league conducted the Challenge Cup as a preseason tournament. This was a necessary buffer that afforded the league flexibility in a time of uncertainty.
After the 2021 Challenge Cup ended, it became clear that this format is not the best path moving forward. Due to the preseason nature of the format, not all teams took the Challenge Cup seriously. It became an opportunity for experimentation versus competition. Additionally, the continuous nature of the tournament left the players exhausted before the regular season began.
With concerns stemming from 2021, the NWSL raised eyebrows with a similar format in 2022. Teams will play even more group stage games with home and away ties against three geographically grouped opponents. The three group winners and next highest in points will play in a semifinal with the winners progressing to the final. Because this is another competition with geographical groups, teams continue to see the same opponents over and over.
Furthermore, it is unclear why the Challenge Cup this year must be played in a block before the regular season. Preseason started February 1st and is about 6 weeks. An option would be instead to start the regular season early March and designate weekends throughout the first two-thirds of the season as Challenge Cup weekends. A potential group stage could be two groups of six with each team playing each other once. Top four from each group could be seeded into an elimination bracket.
As another option, teams could meet up at neutral hubs to promote the league in new markets. In the “western” group, Las Vegas and Denver could be options. In the “eastern” group, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Atlanta would be interesting locations. Due to the neutral hubs, teams could play both Thursday and Monday or Friday and Tuesday without travel in between. Squads would have to rotate players to avoid fatigue, which would give opportunities to more players.
Another interesting idea would be to invite the top four Liga MX Femenil teams to compete in the tournament. The fresh competition would be a welcomed change. The current three groups of four would become four groups of four with one Mexican club in each group. Whatever the league decides moving forward, this competition needs to change, and spreading it throughout the year is the way to go.
The Coaching Carousel Goes Round and Round
One NWSL club started preseason with the same head coach they had at the start of last season. Another club started preseason without a head coach entirely. The second longest-tenured NWSL coach has yet to coach a single minute in the league Here is a chart with all the changes.
2021 Preseason Head Coach
Current Head Coach
Angel City FC
Chicago Red Stars
Kansas City Current
NJ/NY Gotham FC
North Carolina Courage
Portland Thorns FC
Racing Louisville FC
San Diego Wave FC
While not all departures related to abuse, scandal after scandal shook the NWSL last season. These horrible events lead to the rightful termination of five of ten head coaches. The hiring processes for new coaches openly included current players from the team, more rigorous background checks, and detailed testimonials from past and current players. Hopefully, change will bring a new era of respect and professionalism that unifies the league.
Even though player personnel remains similar among teams, new coaches can bring a completely new style. Different coaches want to try new things on the field. A major storyline through the Challenge Cup will be how the players respond to new coaching styles and execute new strategies. Tune in to CBS and Paramount+ in the States or Twitch internationally to catch all the action. Follow the WoSo Show on Patreon, Twitter, Instagram, and major podcasting platforms for more NWSL Challenge Cup news and analysis.