The NWSL Challenge Cup has featured plenty of twists and turns. The mind wants to impose narrative structure, but we should try to get comfortable with the randomness.
Two days ago, the Houston Dash were the toast of the league while virtually everyone in the women’s soccer intelligentsia was convinced that Sky Blue were rudderless, confused, and on the wrong track. The Utah Royals were outplaying expectations and beating the odds, while OL Reign were massively underplaying their potential and at risk of a total lost season.
Today, Sky Blue occupy the #2 seed in the tournament. They sit on four points, which ties them with all three of the above-mentioned teams, along with the Washington Spirit—themselves a team who was quickly dubbed ‘the main challengers to North Carolina’ right up until they played North Carolina.
Our intentions coming in were generally good. A month ago, most people writing and talking about the Challenge Cup agreed that it was too small a sample to really draw serious conclusions. Teams were at various stages of development, and five guaranteed games isn’t anywhere close to long enough to settle, much less to start firing on all cylinders. The proper ‘objective’ for each team therefore depended a great deal on their particular conditions. Sure, everyone would like to win. But mostly this was a tournament to keep the lights on, and the real focus still needed to be on setting things up for 2021.
I think if you asked people in the abstract, everyone would still mostly agree with that sentiment. But the narrative keeps intruding. We watch individual games and our minds insist on searching for meaning, often to the detriment of real understanding.
The point of all this isn’t to poke fun at those who have jumped to hasty conclusions. It’s simply to note that human beings are narrative-construction machines, and that we may not be particularly well-equipped to truly get our minds around a tournament of this nature. Team Chaos is always going to like its odds in a tournament of this length, in a league with this much parity.
Is Sky Blue rudderless, or actually good?
Sky Blue is a perfect case in point. Those criticizing them over the first two games weren’t wrong. They did play poorly, and in a style that didn’t seem to fit with the players on the squad. They have fast and skillful attackers and a ropey central midfield and central defense. The logical approach is to sit back and punch quickly on counterattacks. So why were they trying to play a possession game?
As I wrote last week, one simple answer is that they’re not really playing to win games in July 2020. They’re trying to set a style that will bear fruit next spring. But last night’s results show something else: this approach doesn’t have to be toothless in the moment. Against a Houston team that has generally avoided playing on the wings (and was even more aggressively committed to that notion on the day), Sky Blue played three wingers: Paige Monaghan wide in the attack, along with two forward-cum-fullbacks—Midge Purce and Imani Dorsey.
Houston’s play was deeply constricted, leaving them few channels to go forward. That left acres of space out wide, which Sky Blue exploited well. It didn’t directly translate into goals, but the burden of constantly chasing players moving into unoccupied space left Houston’s defense thoroughly discombobulated. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Sky Blue finally found themselves able to create through quick passing attacks in the middle, after two games of futility.
Another key difference: Sky Blue finally put out a midfield with three good possession-oriented midfielders. Sarah Woldmoe has started all three games, but has mostly shared the space with Naho Kawasumi (far more effective in a more purely creative role further forward, as we saw last night) and Domi Richardson (a pure defensive player, who to be honest, hasn’t shown much to justify a starting spot). Against Houston, Sky Blue gave Jennifer Cudjoe her first start alongside Woldmoe and McCall Zerboni. The difference was night and day. Where Sky Blue had consistently struggled to move the ball progressively, they now combined effectively to slice apart the Houston midfield.
I said this during their second game:
And that seems pretty clearly true. Jennifer Cudjoe has been a revelation—with the only real question being how it took so long for anyone in the league to realize she was this good—and Woldmoe and Zerboni are strong veteran contributors, who bring precision and wisdom to the role. Put the three together and you get a considerable multiplier which makes everyone else look much better, too. But that’s all they have. Every other midfield option has significant downsides, and in a hyper-condensed tournament like this, there’s no way you can play your best XI every game, even once you decide what that best XI is.
The Challenge Cup format guarantees weirdness. We should just enjoy it!
So which is the real Sky Blue: the team that showed promise and kept things tight in Game 1, the team that flailed pathetically in Game 2, or the team that absolutely dominated in Game 3? The unsatisfying answer is that probably none of those is correct. In a tournament of this length, there simply isn’t time for a ‘real Sky Blue’ to establish itself. All we can possibly get are some glimpses. Much as our mind wants to map narratives, the sample sizes are too small and the conditions too peculiar.
Narrative construction is human, and it’s not useless. But we would all do well to remember that the conditions of this tournament—a handful of games played in rapid succession after short and interrupted preseasons with rosters that will need more time to settle—simply don’t lend themselves well to hot takes. And even cold takes probably need more distance than will be on offer.
Consider: Sky Blue’s final group stage match is against North Carolina. That will likely be a heavily rotated Courage side, possibly even a full B team. Sky Blue could absolutely win that game and end up a clear #2 seed. Or they could get crushed 4-0 and end up as the #8 seed who then gets steamrolled by the Courage A team a few days later. In either case, don’t hang your hat too much on the result.
And the same is true for almost everyone. North Carolina is a known quantity. But for everyone else? We obviously don’t know the real Orlando, since they are not here. But neither have we seen enough to feel particularly confident about Chicago or Portland or Houston or Utah. They’re all works in progress, and should be judged with that in mind.
At the end of the day, this tournament has been loads of fun, which is really the important thing. The results inform that entertainment, sure. But don’t take them too seriously. Going forward, as we move into the knockout phase, the misalignment between interests will start to resolve itself. Planning for the future is good when you have four preliminary games purely for seeding. But coaches are going to have a hard time feeling as blasé about results once it’s do-or-die.
So I’ll certainly be watching closely. But I'll also be trying to tamp down my need to tell coherent stories, at least until the whole thing wraps up. Team Chaos surely has a few more bizarre results coming down the pike. We don't necessarily need to explain them, but we certainly should try to enjoy them.