The Challenge Cup was great. Let’s do it every year.
In her congratulatory remarks for the Houston Dash, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird described the tournament as the first Challenge Cup. The obvious implication: there will soon be a second and a third and more. I hope that turns out to be correct.
Thanks to coronavirus, this year’s Challenge Cup had to function as a substitute for the full NWSL season. It wasn’t a true replacement for the ebbs and flows of a full season, but in some small ways it actually proved superior. Going forward, a tournament along these lines could make an excellent supplement to a season, giving us an additional way to appreciate the league and its players.
Let’s talk about what made the Challenge Cup so great.
The Challenge Cup packed all its excitement into a month
There’s something delightful about a condensed tournament. Normal cup tournaments across the world operate in the midst of a full regular season. The early stages take place as the season is kicking off, and cup fixtures pop up over the following months, culminating in a cup final toward the end of the year.
There’s nothing wrong with that model, but anyone who has followed international soccer tournaments knows the joy of a packed tournament calendar which races from group stages to a final over the course of just a few weeks. The Challenge Cup provided that sort of complete narrative. This was all by necessity instead of design, of course, but there’s no reason that the model couldn’t be replicated going forward.
This is particularly useful because the NWSL consistently struggles with a problem: what to do with the extended international breaks that plague its schedule. As a summer league that generally can’t start before early April or go longer than October, they can’t afford to pause for the entire World Cup or Olympic break. And with the US National Team players often leaving a full month before their tournament starts—and taking an extra couple weeks to recover after it concludes—the league loses many of its biggest starts for over two months in the middle of the season. That means fully half of NWSL seasons are significantly compromised, with close to half a team’s games affected by these absences.
The Challenge Cup offers an alternative. In these international years, shorten the season to a simple home-and-away schedule (18 games for a ten team league) and run the Challenge Cup in and around the international event. That ensures that everyone stays active and teams can still play games, but outside the normal schedule.
The Challenge Cup provided a chance for new players to lead the way
Somewhat by chance and somewhat by design, the Challenge Cup was a tournament dominated by new faces rather than by the existing stars. Look at the tournament Best XI: it featured five players who did not attend last summer’s World Cup and three internationals—leaving space for only three USWNT regulars. My own personal Best and Second XIs included 22 names, only one of whom was on that US World Cup-winning roster.
That’s partially because some of the only players to skip the tournament were prominent US stars like Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press. The US players also seemed to be on a slightly more restrictive injury regimen, with quite a few seeing limited minutes or getting shut down after injuries. Even two players who did make the official tournament XI—Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan—missed out on my list because they simply didn’t play much, even if they were brilliant while on the pitch.
All that could have been a downer. Without the league’s defining players at the head of the class, the tournament could have fizzled. But it was exactly the opposite. Given the opportunity to shine, a new set of players more than rose to the occasion. We saw excellent performances from rising stars, rookies who might normally have struggled to find minutes. We saw tournament-defining breakouts from long-time league stalwarts like Shea Groom and Kristie Mewis. More than anything, we saw clear proof that this league’s talent runs far deeper than just the top-line stars.
That’s often the role of cup tournaments, which provide opportunities for young players, for backup goalkeepers, for contributors who don’t normally get a chance to shine. The NWSL should embrace that possibility. The Challenge Cup doesn’t need every star to be a success. It might even be better without some of those players.
Cups provide more chances for silverware
The list of NWSL championship winners is pretty short. Only three organizations have won the league (four if you insist on calling Western New York different than North Carolina despite having the same players and same staff). That leaves a lot of clubs on the outside.
A regular cup tournament provides an alternative route. And this is another place where the peculiarities of the tournament are potential advantages rather than weaknesses.
The Houston Dash surprised a lot of people, not just by winning the Challenge Cup, but by playing so well in doing it. Their win wasn’t a fluke. But I still don’t think anybody really believes the Dash have the best team in the league. Over the course of a full season, you’d certainly still bet on North Carolina to outpace the rest, and the Dash would at best be in the same general range as many other clubs like Chicago and Portland and Washington.
But that’s the beauty of a short tournament. It doesn’t measure sustained quality over months. It measures who can capture their potential, keep everyone on the same page, and execute together in the moment.
A regular Challenge Cup will double the available silverware, and will give teams with different strengths more space to seriously compete. That’s great for everyone.
The Challenge Cup could also be used to extend the season
A centrally-located cup tournament also provides a nice model for extending the season in non-international years. The idea of pushing the NWSL into November and December in the US creates some obvious problems. No one wants to play soccer, much less sit and watch soccer being played, in Chicago or New Jersey when it’s 20 degrees and snowing.
But the Challenge Cup provides an alternative. It would be very easy to let the season finish on a normal schedule, and then reassemble the teams in a climate-friendly location to play another slate of games in November.
Again, this offers some useful flexibility. The winter is generally when the US national team runs discovery camps, and when the core national team players get a bit of rest. There’s no need to fight either of those things. Instead, the Challenge Cup offers optionality. Players can participate if they need to retain their sharpness, or play their way back to fitness. If not, they can clear the space for back-benchers and replacement players to make their case.
Don’t be afraid to keep experimenting
The Challenge Cup was a success in large part because everyone was willing to think outside the box. As a result, they hit on an interesting model. The lesson should be clear: don’t be afraid to keep experimenting.
Location: they could continue to hold it in a single city, or it could be spread out over a couple locations. And there’s no reason it has to be limited to existing NWSL markets. Why not use the event as an opportunity to prime the pump in future expansion targets?
Invitations to participate: there’s no reason at all that a few international clubs couldn’t be invited to fill out the ranks. Imagine a Challenge Cup with ten NWSL teams and two Liga MX Femenil entrants. Think of how much fun it would be to invite Lyon or Manchester City. Maybe teams from the Nadeshiko League.
Format: it’s called the ‘Challenge’ Cup. What if they built that into the system? Instead of traditional seeding, you could let the previous winner set the bracket themselves.
Ultimately, the beauty of a new event is the freedom it provides. There’s plenty of value in tradition. But if you don’t have the tradition, there’s no need to stay locked into the model that others have used. The Challenge Cup could be so much more than a standard open cup. The NWSL should seize the opportunity and use this year’s success to take another leap forward.