NWSL Challenge Cup 2022: Midway Takeaways
By: Tim Antoniewicz
The one constant in the NWSL is that nothing is predictable. To no surprise, the 2022 Challenge Cup is no different. About two-thirds through, this year’s edition is not stacking up how everyone expected. Let’s dive into some takeaways at this point of the competition.
Welcome Back North Carolina
In hindsight, we should have seen this one coming. With a core of talented internationals intact, the Courage unsurprisingly floated back to the top. For the first time in years, the Courage entered the season as actual underdogs, and they used their famous mentality to regain form.
New head coach Sean Nahas revitalized the team by adding several key players in the offseason. Many of these players are young, emerging talents with the potential to reinstate the Courage dynasty in the upcoming years. Brianna Pinto, Malia Berkely, Kiki Pickett, and Diana Ordoñez contributed significantly in the past few matches. Brazilian forward Kerolin recorded her first appearance, and the club recently announced the arrival of French forward Valérie Gauvin on a transfer from Everton.
As the pieces continue to fall in place, the question remains if the Courage can hold on. After a surprising start, they currently lead the Eastern group, which is arguably the toughest group in the competition. However, last year’s NWSL Championship side Washington Spirit sits right below them in second. The Spirit seem to be finding their form, and the group could be decided when the two sides meet in the final weekend of group play.
The Eternal Re-Build
While some clubs continue to excel, others find themselves once again at the bottom of the table. This brings up the question of when a low-table team is no longer re-building and just a low-table team. Some teams have to finish lower on the table than others. Unfortunately for these clubs, the Orlando Pride and Houston Dash seem to fit in this category.
With the Pride essentially eliminated from playoff contention, the Dash remain within touching distance of the leaders. With an electric front three of Rachel Daly, Nichelle Prince, and Maria Sánchez, the Dash are a fun team to watch with the ability to upset any opponent. What lets them down is the midfield and defensive groups. Without Kristie Mewis, Shea Groom attracts more attention in the midfield, and Sophie Schmidt’s holding play appears to be on the decline.
Although the current outlook is grim, the Dash have options. Now is the time to explore them. Center back Ally Prisock recently returned from French club GPSO 92 Issy, which could fill a major hole for the Dash. Right back Haley Hanson is a converted defensive midfielder. Head coach James Clarkson’s multi-season experiment with her seems to be regressing. A move back to defensive midfield would do wonders for this team. The club has a group of players to trial at right back. Defensive-minded attacker Bri Visalli would be an interesting candidate. While the Pride look forward to the regular season, with the proper adjustments the Dash can still do some damage.
Chicago Finds a Way Once Again
Every competition the Red Stars over-perform their preseason predictions. In 2020, nobody knew how they would respond to the departure of Sam Kerr. They made it to the inaugural Challenge Cup final. This season is no different. Multiple correspondents for the WoSo Show predicted the Red Stars to finish at the bottom of the group. Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, and Katie Johnson departed this offseason. Kealia Watt suffered an ACL injury and is still out. The offseason turmoil surrounding their disgraced former coach shook the league. Understandably, many believed this team would struggle in 2022.
Instead, the Red Stars lead the Central group. New head coach Chris Petrucelli revitalized the team with a major formation change trying to get the most out of attacking wing backs Arin Wright and Bianca St-Georges. Even with the season-ending injury of star defender Tierna Davidson, the team continues to excel. The veteran midfield continues to quietly dominate opponents, even with leader Morgan Gautrat limited with injury. Young players Ava Cook, Ella Stevens, and Sarah Griffith embraced key roles and performed well so far.
With others supporting her, the clear star pushing this team forward is Mal Pugh. The veteran youngster leads the entire competition with four goals. In the best form of her career, she is a starting lock for the USWNT. Every time she touches the ball, the entire audience seems to hold its breath because she can score at any moment. With Pugh’s injury history and major minutes in the international windows, the club will have to rest her sometimes. It is up to the remaining players to pick up the slack in her absence.
Expansion Teams are Expansion Teams
For the first time in NWSL history, the league underwent double expansion in the offseason bringing two teams to southern California. A longtime women’s soccer hotbed and enticing place to play, many wondered if these teams would buck the trend of struggling in their inaugural seasons.
Both clubs made positive moves to prepare for the season. They invested in proven successful leaders in front office, technical staff, and player roles. Both clubs offer competitive training environments with high quality resources. They also followed MLS side Austin FC’s example of involving the community early, which is key to developing a dedicated fanbase and game day experience.
Even after doing everything right, both teams fell unsurprisingly flat on the field in the initial stages of 2022. Grouped with two talented and well-established teams, neither were bound to make a dent this early. However, the year is still young, and their goals for this Challenge Cup will not have been the same as other teams. They likely entered trying to develop chemistry and refine a style of play. Angel City suffered many injuries in preseason. San Diego features many players with minimal to no previous experience in this league. Both sides have less depth than other teams, which is common among expansion sides.
While both clubs have room to grow, there have been some magical moments so far. After an extended absence from the game, Christen Press is back and better than ever. Her duel in the opening match against San Diego goalkeeper Kalien Sheridan built an impressive highlight reel. Alex Morgan is tied for second in the league with three goals. As the calendar progresses, look for both SoCal teams to grow into the league, with San Diego poised for a potential regular season playoff position.
The Year of the Baby
Historically, the unfortunate, unspoken truth in women’s sports was that pregnancy was discouraged. Players feared losing their already minimal contracts or spots on national teams. Clubs or federations did not always support players through their pregnancies or as new mothers. Examples include Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez.
Fortunately, this is no longer the landscape in the NWSL. The recently ratified CBA includes multiple layers of protection and provisions for biological and non-biological parents. Many teams such as Louisville and Chicago announced specialized fertility services for prospective mothers in any stage of family planning. The league already had many parents. However, many players recently announced pregnancies or welcomed new family members. These systemic league-wide changes likely played a huge role in players’ decisions.
Some new NWSL moms include AD Franch, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, and Alex Morgan. Several currently pregnant NWSL players include Crystal Dunn, Allie Long, Julie Ertz, Cheyna Matthews, Sarah Woldmoe, and Casey Krueger. Some other active NWSL moms who led the way for change include Sarah Gorden, Arin Wright, Sydney Leroux, and Jess McDonald. We also want to acknowledge previous NWSL moms. These players returned to play in the league after welcoming new family members. Some include Amy Rodriguez, Michele Vasconcelos, Christie Rampone, Steph Cox, and Shannon Boxx.
Here at The WoSo Show, we would like to congratulate all of the new and soon-to-be parents on the exciting additions to their families. Continue to follow The WoSo Show for more NWSL and FA WSL news and analysis online or on multiple social media outlets. You can also support us on Patreon.
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