Born out of necessity but becoming a mainstay, the third annual NWSL Challenge Cup is set to kick off on Friday, March 18th.
The first ever Challenge Cup, won by the Houston Dash, was held as a standalone tournament in Utah in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 Challenge Cup was decided by penalty kicks in Portland following a 1-1 draw between NJ/NY Gotham FC and Portland Thorns FC.
Although technically a preseason campaign, the Challenge Cup provides excitement for fans while also allowing teams to put the finishing touches on their tactics during a competitive tournament.
With two new teams entering the fray this season and many existing teams in a re-build, the Challenge Cup could answer some lingering questions about what fans can expect in the 2022 regular season.
We will have to wait until the final on May 7th to see who wins it all, but in the meantime, let’s take a look at the tournament rules, the groupings of the teams, and hints from the 2021 season to find out who might win each group.
Unlike 2021 where the teams were split into east and west round-robin groups, this year’s Challenge Cup will feature three regional groups: East, West, and Central.
In the East, NJ/NY Gotham FC, the North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride and the Washington Spirit will compete for the top spot.
In the West, expansion teams Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC join OL Reign and reigning Challenge Cup champions Portland Thorns FC.
In the Central Region we have the Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City Current and Racing Louisville FC duking it out.
Each team will play six matches, receiving 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss.
The top three teams from each region will move on to the semifinals, along with the highest ranking second place team from one of the groups. The seeds will be determined by points accumulated in the group stage with a predetermined set of tiebreakers in case of equal results.
Following group play, the top three teams and the highest placing second place team will be seeded for the semifinals. The top three teams will receive seeds 1 through 3 based on points accumulated and necessary tiebreakers. The highest ranking second place team will be seeded 4th.
Tiebreakers for teams will first go to goal differential, followed by the greatest number of goals scored, then team conduct score, and if all else fails, the league will draw lots.
The official Rules and Regulations for the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup can be seen in detail here.
Once the seeding is determined, seed 1 will host seed 4, and seed 2 will host seed 3 for the semifinal matches.
Rules and Ramifications
Although this is a preseason tournament, what happens on the field could directly impact the 2022 regular season.
For example, if a player is issued a direct red card and a subsequent suspension cannot be served during the Challenge Cup (i.e. the direct red card is obtained in the final), that suspension will be carried over to the team’s next NWSL Regular Season match.
Indirect red cards are not subjected to the same regular season suspension.
As for the games themselves, no extra time will be played during knockout games. That means semifinals and final matches will go straight to penalty kicks following a tied score in regulation time.
Teams will be permitted five substitutions during each match plus two concussion substitutes as needed.
Teams must have a minimum of eighteen players and maximum of twenty players on their matchday rosters.
Predictions by Region
West Region Predicted Winner: OL Reign
This region appears to be the most exciting of the three. With the two expansion teams Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC making their debut against historic powerhouse teams like Portland Thorns and OL Reign, it’s sure to be an exhilarating matchup for each game.
The Thorns and OL Reign are the known quantities. As 2021 NWSL Shield and 2021 Challenge Cup winners, the Portland Thorns are certainly a favorite to repeat their group stage win and perhaps take it all the way yet again.
Even with those accolades, the Thorns said goodbye to key players during the off-season, including Crystal Dunn who is expecting her first child and Lindsay Horan who is on loan in France with Lyon. The Thorns will also be welcoming a new coach Rhian Wilkinson, a former player with the Canadian National Team who briefly played for the Thorns herself in 2015.
Missing these players and adding a new coach might mean the Thorns have to revamp things from last season as they adjust an updated roster and potential new playing styles.
OL Reign is seeing a little bit of roster turnover due to various loans ending, but mainstays like 2021 MVP Jess Fishlock, USWNT breakout player Sofia Huerta, and 2019 Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer are returning, along with stalwarts Lu Barnes, Alana Cook, Megan Rapinoe, and Rose Lavelle.
Coached by the NWSL 2021 Coach of the Year Laura Harvey, it seems reasonable to believe that this team will have a clear edge in this group.
It is likely that both teams will use the tournament to test out their rosters, formations, and work out the kinks leading into the regular season. In particular, the Thorns will be an interesting case study. Former coach Mark Parsons preferred a style where the team looked to dominate the ball in the opposition’s third. But Wilkinson, a former attacking minded fullback, might take a different approach and use the Challenge Cup as her trial run.
Not too much is yet known about Angel City or Wave FC. Although we know their rosters, what they have to show for themselves on the field is yet to be determined.
However, with Christen Press leading Angel City and their stacked roster, they are certainly not to be counted out. Press shined during the 2021 Tokyo Olympic games with the USWNT, and was instrumental in helping the team win the bronze medal.
Because Angel City and Wave FC will probably use the Challenge Cup to refine their play for their regular season, this group will most likely come down to the Thorns and OL Reign where it feels like OL Reign has the slight edge. The Thorns seem to have a little more work to do to get ready for the regular season, and Reign is likely hungry for redemption from their loss in the 2021 NWSL Regular Season semifinals.
East Region Predicted Winner: Gotham FC
This group can also be split into two parts: the 2021 NWSL Championship winners the Washington Spirit and the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup finalists Gotham FC, and two teams in a re-building phase: Orlando Pride and NC Courage.
Although the Courage have historically been the team to beat, having won the NWSL Championship and Shield a combined 5 times, the club barely made it into playoff contention in 2021.
In the off-season, North Carolina lost key pieces of their roster including Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Jessica McDonald. However, they retained key pieces including goalkeeper Casey Murphy and midfielder Debinha, and picked up exciting players like Brianna Pinto who was traded from Gotham FC in the off-season.
Orlando Pride finished third-to-last in 2021 following a fall from the top of the table in the middle of the season. Inconsistency has been their curse, and now the team is going in a new direction with a younger roster and new coach.
The club saw significant turnover in the off-season with the departures of big names like Alex Morgan, Ali Riley, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, and Taylor Kornieck. The organization also is rebuilding their coaching staff, adding Amanda Cromwell from UCLA to the head coach position.
This younger roster and fresh energy could help the Pride during the Challenge Cup as they look to build momentum going into the regular season. The team also retained key talent including Marta in the midfield and Sydney Leroux up top who will no doubt be instrumental in leading the team in 2022.
The Washington Spirit saw almost zero turnover during the off-season, keeping the champions largely intact going into 2022. The Spirit is also a very young team, with an average age of 25.6 years old last season. A significant portion of their minutes played came from players younger than this average. It will be interesting to see how they develop as the year continues.
Gotham FC saw some departures in the off-season, but only minimal turnover in their starting XI from last year. The most significant departures were the trading of their two goalkeepers Kailen Sheridan and DiDi Haracic to San Diego and Angel City. To remedy their woes, the team brought in two veteran goalkeepers: Ashlyn Harris from Orlando Pride and Michelle Betos from Racing Louisville.
This competition in goal and who wins that starting spot will be a unique storyline for Gotham FC. Last season, Betos ranked second in the NWSL for goals saved above average (i.e. how many goals she prevented as what would be expected) whereas Harris, an esteemed veteran keeper with USWNT experience, saved every penalty kick she faced in 2021. With Gotham FC having lost the 2021 Challenge Cup in a penalty shootout, Harris might be a key component for the team to take it all the way to the trophy.
Because of the rebuilding stages of Orlando and Courage, this group will likely come down to Washington Spirit and Gotham FC. During 2021, Gotham FC was never beaten by Spirit, winning once and drawing once.
The Spirit may be the 2021 Regular Season Champions, but Gotham FC was a 2021 Challenge Cup finalist, proving that they can thrive in this type of competition. Gotham might have a slight edge over Spirit to take the top spot, but it wouldn’t be surprising if one of these two teams snagged the highest ranking second place spot to move forward to the semifinals, either.
Central Region Predicted Winner: Houston Dash
The Central group appears to have the most parity of the three regions.
Although the Chicago Red Stars made it to the NWSL final last year, they have seen significant attrition of players leaving the organization, including Sarah Gorden and Julie Ertz to ACFC. The club also lost a number of solid options including Nikki Stanton to OL Reign, and Katie Johnson and Makenzy Doniak to San Diego Wave FC.
The Chicago Red Stars are also welcoming a new coach Chris Petrucelli out of Southern Methodist University.
Even after winning the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Houston Dash could not translate that win to the 2021 NWSL Regular Season. The team came in 7th place, just missing out on a playoff spot.
The Dash also lost a number of key pieces during the off-season including Kristie Mewis to Gotham FC and Jasmyne Spencer to Angel City FC.
Even with those departures, the Dash still boast an impressive roster led by Rachel Daly and Jane Campbell.
The Dash also have a number of new, exciting arrivals including forward Paulina Gramaglia on loan from UAI Urquiza in Argentina, an underrated off-season acquisition. Additionally, the team signed Maria Sanchez from Tigres UANL in LigaMX.
KC Current and Racing Louisville came in at the bottom of the table in 2021. As an expansion team, Louisville did fairly well for themselves, picking up 22 points in the season and avoiding the last place slot.
To add to their goal scoring, the club added former USWNT player Jessica McDonald to their ranks this offseason. McDonald, who scored 5 goals in total in 2021 actually underperformed her expected goals by half. Since these metrics often stabilize, she should be able to add to this tally considerably in 2022.
The Current struggled during the 2021 season but picked up towards the latter stages of play. They team has has added strong pieces to their roster in 2022 including Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams who are poised to make a huge difference on this team’s attack. However, the Challenge Cup might still be used by the team and new head coach Matt Potter to fine tune their tactics for the regular season and help build up team chemistry.
With last year’s NWSL finalists Chicago Red Stars in a rebuilding phase, the Houston Dash seem poised to take this group. Although Kansas City with their stacked roster could definitely give teams a run for their money, the Dash have the consistency continuing over from 2021 and have proven their prowess in the Challenge Cup format.
The Chaos Cup
Regardless of how the tournament turns out, the NWSL Challenge Cup - affectionately known as the Chaos Cup - is sure to be both entertaining and enlightening. We will have to wait until May to see who wins it all.
While players have voiced concerns about the timing of the tournament, having it in preseason has a few positives. It allows for teams to try out their ideas in a competitive environment before the regular season, gives new players the opportunity to get in real games with their teams, and drums up excitement leading into the regular season.
One of the most exciting parts of the NWSL is that on any given day, any team could win any game. The 2022 Challenge Cup Champion could easily be any one of the league’s 12 teams - which is what makes it so much fun to watch. As the NWSL enters its 10th year, the Challenge Cup could prove to be an integral part of the league for many years to come.
Who do you think will win each group? Leave your comments below!