Only a few weeks into the regular season, the NWSL is already switching gears. The 2023 Challenge Cup kicks off with five games on Wednesday as the league gets set to debut a new Cup format in its fourth year of existence.
Instead of a preseason tournament, the Challenge Cup will run as an in-season campaign with games interspersed throughout the league’s regular season. To accommodate players competing in the World Cup this summer, the league will play only Challenge Cup games from July 10 to Aug. 17. The top four teams at the end of the Cup round-robin stage will advance to single-elimination semifinals on Sept. 6, and the final will be played on Sept. 9.
With more prize money available than ever before, players will be greatly incentivized to compete for the trophy. What can fans expect from this year’s version of the Challenge Cup? Let’s dig in.
The NWSL’s decision to turn the Challenge Cup into an in-season competition is rooted in recent history. In 2020, the Challenge Cup functioned as a mini-tournament replacing the regular season, as professional sports reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021 and 2022, the Challenge Cup became a preseason tournament, where teams played out the group stages before the regular season began. The scheduling was both a blessing and a curse as teams rotated depth and showed a varied commitment to immediate results versus long-term process.
For example, the NWSL’s two new California expansion sides in 2022, the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC, used Challenge Cup to test brand-new rosters ahead of the regular season. The Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage, meanwhile, played competitively all the way to the Challenge Cup final and then suffered in the regular season after a taxing Cup championship game.
Turning the Cup into a regular season competition should help teams stay sharp, and UKG’s commitment of $1 million in prize money — equitable to the winnings of the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament — will keep players engaged. While coaches will be tasked with keeping their squads fresh for the regular season matches on either side of their midweek Cup games, players will give their all with the opportunity to win bonuses that rival some of the highest in women’s soccer.
The Challenge Cup is a depth game, so the teams that have the ability to rotate without sacrificing quality will have the best chance at winning it all by the end of the year. Fitness and player absences for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in July and August will force some teams into greater challenges than others.
Historically, the Challenge Cup has rewarded scrappy sides who ride momentum and punch above their weight. In 2023, however, the stretched-out schedule could tip the scales back in favor of the NWSL Shield contenders. OL Reign, the Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current boast the highest levels of depth in the NWSL.
While the Current’s injury bug could hold them back in the early stages of the competition, they have the reinforcements to power through the World Cup period of the Cup, including a number of top midfielders and attackers who will not be leaving for any period of time. Another team to watch out for is 2020 Challenge Cup champion Houston Dash, who have a frontline of red-hot talent that will not be leaving for Australia and New Zealand in July.
Other teams with the potential to hit their stride as the Cup progresses are Racing Louisville, the Chicago Red Stars and Angel City. All three of those clubs have shallow areas on their rosters, but due to their roster construction, could have more players available during the World Cup than a number of the league’s heavy-hitters.
In past Challenge Cups, strong midfields that can generate goal-scoring opportunities have held an advantage in later rounds, and this year might be no different.
Houston’s attacking trio of Diana Ordoñez, María Sánchez and Ebony Salmon have already been putting opponents under pressure in the early going of the regular season, and it’s possible all three will be available throughout the Cup (Salmon theoretically could still be called up to England).
The Current could find themselves heavily reliant on their non-World Cup talent, including rookie attacker Michelle Cooper and veteran midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, while hoping Morgan Gautrat and Kristen Hamilton return from injury. Racing Louisville will also rely on a growing midfield, as Jaelin Howell and Savannah McCaskill try to stake their claim as the next generation of the USWNT midfield player pool.
OL Reign and Portland will similarly turn to their stacked midfields. The Thorns boast rising U.S. talent Olivia Moultrie as an attacking midfield option, while the Reign have already gotten quality minutes from midfielder Olivia van der Jagt, who will likely combine with longtime veteran Jess Fishlock while World Cup players are away.
Outside of the hidden gems, expect the league’s top stars to show out before they leave for the international stage. Sophia Smith currently leads the regular season Golden Boot race with four goals and two assists, followed by Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch with three goals. Gotham winger Midge Purce has two goals and two assists as she battles for a spot on the USWNT’s World Cup squad.
Challenge Cup champion
Portland Thorns over Houston Dash
The Dash have the defensive tenacity and attacking firepower to advance all the way to the Cup final. But given the length of this year’s Challenge Cup, the deepest and steadiest team should have just enough to emerge victorious.
Challenge Cup MVP
Sam Coffey, M, Portland Thorns
Midfield options will be critical throughout the Challenge Cup, and Portland’s could be the difference in the quest for the trophy and $1 million prize pool. Coffey has been growing into her role as a midfield maestro for Portland, and the team doesn’t have an obvious rotation replacement that would pull minutes from the 24-year-old.
Challenge Cup Golden Boot
Diana Ordoñez, F, Houston Dash
Ordoñez is the focal point of Houston’s front three, with the ability to score both with her feet and her head. The Dash have the potential to make one of the strongest runs during the World Cup period as the chemistry between Mexico teammates María Sánchez and Ordoñez builds with every game.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.