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Andi Sullivan says NWSL Challenge Cup needs ‘a lot of revision’

(Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Andi Sullivan doesn’t believe the NWSL Challenge Cup should continue in its current format, adding her voice to the growing chorus of people with criticisms of the preseason tournament.

Sullivan, along with Emily Sonnett and Trinity Rodman, sat down with teammate Kelley O’Hara for a wide-ranging discussion on The Players’ Pod ahead of the Washington Spirit’s May 4 semifinal against OL Reign.

“I think the timing and the format is not the best,” Sullivan told O’Hara. “Obviously in 2020, it was kind of like what we had to do, and I think we are forcing it a little bit to keep it around. I think it needs to be updated to either be shorter or spaced out throughout the season.”

The inaugural Challenge Cup marked the NWSL’s return to competition amid the COVID-19 pandemic, hosted in a bubble in Utah during the summer of 2020. The tournament has since evolved into a preseason fixture, and the knockout rounds coincide with the start of the regular season.

“We’re calling it a preseason tournament, but it’s also a chance to win a trophy, and I think it’s unclear what it really is,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s been very frustrating to have three games in seven days starting off the season.

“I think it needs a lot of revision.”

O’Hara agreed with Sullivan’s assessment, calling the tournament’s rigorous schedule “quite dangerous.”

The scheduling of the Spirit’s semifinal game against OL Reign drew much of the backlash. The Reign, the No. 1 seed coming out of the group stage, were forced to host the game in Washington, D.C. because Lumen Field, their home stadium in Seattle, was occupied by the Seattle Sounders. The semifinal then only moved from the 5,000-seat Segra Field to Audi Field, a 20,000-capacity stadium, when the NWSL reached an agreement with the Aspen Institute, which was hosting an all-day summit at the field that day.

The Spirit won the game to advance to the Challenge Cup final, setting them up to play three games in one week and forcing them to postpone their regular season game originally scheduled for that day.

“Now we are playing Seattle on Sunday for the regular-season opener, play them on Wednesday for the Challenge Cup semi, and then we play them again in May at Seattle, so we will be done playing Seattle three times in one month and won’t see them again for the rest of the season. I just think that is poorly planned,” Sullivan said.

The Spirit lost to the North Carolina Courage 2-1 last Saturday in a physical Challenge Cup final.

With both sides appearing fatigued after a grueling start to the season, the game featured multiple sloppy tackles that went uncalled. Toward the end of the match, Jordan Baggett appeared to lose consciousness after a hard collision, and players had to frantically call for medical staff before helping them push the stretcher onto the field.

Listen to the latest episode of The Players’ Pod for more of the Spirit players’ insights on the league.