2023 NWSL Challenge Cup Preview
For fans of the NWSL, the Challenge Cup has been both a chaotic and an exciting part of league competition, but this year, the tournament looks completely different.
The 2023 UKG NWSL Challenge Cup features a $1 million prize pool, the largest in United States women's soccer history.
Challenge Cup Banner / Photo courtesy of NWSL
Challenge Cup History and 2023 Reformatting
The Challenge Cup kicked off in the 2020 NWSL season as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Held in June and July of 2020, it marked the first return to play by a top professional sports league in the United States. In 2020, eight of the league's then-nine teams competed in the round-robin tournament. The Orlando Pride ultimately withdrew after too many COVID-positive cases. The Houston Dash took home the first Challenge Cup trophy, and the league announced its intention to continue the tournament in following seasons.
In 2021, the Challenge Cup was held as a preseason tournament and took place from early April to May. In this tournament, there were two divisions of five teams each, and the winners of each division played each other in the Challenge Cup Championship. The Portland Thorns captured the second Challenge Cup title.
Last season, the 2022 Challenge Cup began in preseason and lasted throughout the beginning of the regular season. The addition of two expansion teams necessitated a three-division format, with division winners and the next best record-holding team moving on to the semifinals. The North Carolina Courage won the Challenge Cup last year.
While the Challenge Cup gives teams time to gel, many noted that the top-heavy schedule hurts players just getting back into form. In fact, both teams in the 2022 Challenge Cup championship, OL Reign and the Courage, had to bounce back from rocky starts to their regular season campaigns.
The North Carolina Courage won the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup / Photo Courtesy of NC Courage
In this year's UKG Challenge Cup, the three-division format will remain the same. However, instead of a preseason tournament, teams will compete in their Challenge Cup matches mid-week during the season. This is the first season where no Challenge Cup matches occur during preseason. Beginning on April 19, the Challenge Cup will run through the regular season and culminate with the Championship game on September 9.
2023 also marks the first year with workforce management company UKG as the tournament's sponsor. This exciting partnership makes the UKG Challenge Cup the first U.S. Women's Soccer event with a prize pool of over $1 million. The tournament, which has traditionally given bubble players their opportunities to prove themselves, will do so even more this year as we see some of the league's top talent leave for the FIFA Women's World Cup.
2023 Challenge Cup Preview
The action all starts this Wednesday, April 19, with ten teams starting their Challenge Cup campaigns. The Orlando Pride will host the North Carolina Courage during the first game of the Challenge Cup. Orlando, who currently sits at last in the regular season standings after three matches played, has nothing to lose. While they've had some individually bright moments, the young team has yet to mesh together; they've let in eight goals and only scored one. The Courage are currently in tenth place and are led by Brazilian attacker Kerolin. Similarly, the Courage have a lot of new faces and this tournament could provide the extra playing time needed for team cohesion.
NJ/NY Gotham FC play host to the Washington Spirit on April 19 as well. Both Gotham and the Spirit have started off their regular seasons on the right foot, sitting at fifth and second in the league respectively. Gotham features a star-studded roster and a high-powered attack led by Midge Purce and Lynn Williams, who have scored all of Gotham's regular season goals thus far. They will face up against a Spirit team who are off to their best regular season start in club history, thanks to forwards Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman.
The third match being held during the Challenge Cup's opening night will feature the Houston Dash and the Kansas City Current in Texas. The Dash enter the Challenge Cup as strong contenders, with an unbeaten start through their first regular season games. With arguably one of the strongest attacks, Houston will be a tough opponent for the winless Current. Kansas City is riddled with injuries and has already let in nine goals to start off their regular season. Current midfielder Debinha was last year's Challenge Cup MVP and will help Kansas City try to prove that they can bounce back after a rocky start.
The Portland Thorns will travel to San Diego to take on the Wave in the first of two late games in what is arguably the most challenging division (West) of the Challenge Cup. Notably, three of the four teams in the West Division sit in three of the top four spots in the current regular season standings. Portland, who leads the league thus far, has proved they know how to score behind Sophia Smith's five goals and two assists. They face a challenging Wave team that is also no stranger to finding the back of the net with the help of last year's Golden Boot winner, Alex Morgan. This match should be exciting and high-scoring.
Finally, OL Reign visit BMO Stadium in Los Angeles to take on Angel City FC in another late match. While Los Angeles is a tough environment to play in, OL Reign knows how to rise to the occasion; in all competitions against Angel City, they have never lost. OL Reign enters on the heels of back-to-back regular season wins and strong overall team performances. While they are a cohesive unit, they can struggle to capitalize on goal scoring chances. Angel City, on the other hand, thrives on big moments and last-minute chances, having come from behind to win and tie their previous two games in the waning minutes. Add to that the recent signing of USWNT midfielder Julie Ertz, who we likely won't see until later this week, and Angel City will be hard to beat at home.
UKG NWSL Challenge Cup 2023 Schedule / Photo Courtesy of NWSL