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NWSL Challenge Cup: Predictions for the revamped 2023 edition

Sam Coffey is primed to stand out for the Portland Thorns while other players are away for the World Cup. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

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.

Why the schedule change matters

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.

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With rookie Michelle Cooper and other veterans, Kansas City has the depth to sustain World Cup absences. (William Purnell/USA TODAY Sports)

Which teams are set up best to compete?

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.

Top players to watch: Check the midfield

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.

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Diana Ordoñez leads a dangerous Houston Dash frontline through the Challenge Cup. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

Predictions

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.

Two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas Re-Signs with Barcelona on Two-Year Deal

Alexia Putellas on the field for barcelona
The two-time Ballon d’Or winner has been with Barcelona for 12 years. (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Alexia Putellas has re-signed with FC Barcelona on a new two-year deal that will run through 2026. The agreement includes an option for a one-year extension. 

The two-time Ballon d’Or winner has been with Barcelona for 12 years, and her previous contract was set to expire next month. However, she’s spent the better part of the last two seasons battling injuries, starting with an ACL tear that kept her out of the 2022 UEFA European Women's Football Championship and limited her participation in Spain’s FIFA Women's World Cup win last summer. 

Putellas returned in March from her latest injury setback, making 25 appearances across all competitions for Barcelona this season and scoring 10 goals. 

In total, the midfielder has made 400 appearances for Barcelona. Among her 20 major trophies with the club include eight Liga F titles and two UEFA Champions League titles — including helping the team to its first European trophy in 2021. 

She then won the Ballon d’Or in back-to-back seasons in 2021 and 2022. 

Putellas could add a third Champions League trophy next weekend, when Barcelona faces familiar foe Lyon, a team they’ve lost to in two previous Champions League finals. Should they secure the UWCL, they would win the quadruple for the first time, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

WNBA on Pace for Record-Breaking Season

onquel Jones #35 of the New York Liberty rebounds during the game against the Indiana Fever on May 18, 2024 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn
Indiana's game against New York on Saturday was the most-watched WNBA game to ever air on ABC. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA continues its historic trajectory one week into the season, with attendance and viewership skyrocketing across the board. 

Indiana’s Saturday game against the New York Liberty was the most-watched WNBA game ever on ABC, drawing 1.71 million viewers. The Sparks vs. Aces matchup that followed became the third most-watched WNBA game broadcast on ABC with 1.34 million viewers.

On Monday, the tense finish between Indiana and Connecticut drew 1.56 million viewers to ESPN, the second most-watched WNBA game to ever air on cable.

Outside of the league’s viewership, both in-person attendance and merchandise sales have also been on a meteoric rise. On Saturday, the game between New York and Indiana shattered the single-game ticket revenue record in the WNBA, with the Liberty pulling in $2 million in sales. 

New York and Indiana played their home openers in front of more than 17,000 fans, with attendance up 14% year-over-year, according to the league. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Aces, the Liberty, the Wings, the Dream, and others have already sold out of their 2024 season ticket allotments.

Since April’s WNBA Draft, revenue from the WNBA’s official online store is up 2,260%, already blowing past total sales for the entire 2023 season.

While the numbers may cool somewhat as teams settle into their seasons, the pop in demand has already overwhelmingly delivered for the WNBA in 2024.

Angel Reese Adds USL Team Owner to Growing Résumé

chicago sky rookie angel reese speaking at an event
Star rookie Angel Reese is all in on the USL Super League. (JC Olivera/Variety via Getty Images)

Chicago Sky rookie Angel Reese continues to add to her résumé, becoming the newest member of the DC Power Football Club’s ownership group

The No. 7 pick in the WNBA draft joins an group that includes the MLS team DC United as well as other DC-area community members and business owners. One of the USL Super League’s inaugural clubs, DC Power FC is set to begin play in August. 

"I want to help grow women's sports and elevate female athletes across the board," Reese, who's from Maryland, said in a statement. "We're taking over, and I'm honored to be able to support Power FC and invest in women's soccer in the DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) community."

The USL is a sanctioned Division I league, meaning that it is on par with the NWSL and MLS in the United States. The league's eight current clubs are Brooklyn FC, Carolina Ascent FC, Dallas Trinity FC, DC Power FC, Fort Lauderdale United FC, Lexington SC, Spokane Zephyr FC, and Tampa Bay Sun FC.

DC Power FC will also be playing their home games in a familiar location: Matches will be hosted at DC’s Audi Field in partnership with MLS side DC United. Audi Field also home to the NWSL’s Washington Spirit.

"Angel's decision to be a founding investor alongside us in Power FC is groundbreaking," Jason Levien, DC United's CEO and co-chair, said in a statement. "As a Maryland native, Angel is so passionate about being a catalyst for positive change in women's sports in the DMV as well as globally while inspiring the next generation of female athletes. We're looking forward to her partnership in the boardroom as an equity partner."

It's been speculated that the Super League ultimately intends to compete outright with the NWSL. But in its first year, the league will focus on featuring the depth of women's soccer talent in the US.

Former NWSL players like Taylor Aylmer (Spokane), Jordyn Listro (Tampa Bay), Erika Tymrak (Tampa Bay), and Domi Richardson (Tampa Bay) have already announced a return to professional soccer via the USL.

The league is aiming to provide counter-programming to summer women's sports in the States, with a season running from fall to spring like the European calendar.

In a social media post, Reese said that she’s "grateful & blessed" to be part of the new ownership group. It’s the latest move in what has been a whirlwind spring for Reese, which included getting drafted, attending the Met Gala, signing a new partnership with Good American, and debuting with the Chicago Sky, among other achievements.

"Looking forward to creating new opportunities for women in professional soccer," she tweeted. "I’ve always had to desire to invest in a local team as a Maryland native!"

Reese is the latest female athlete to buy into a women’s sports team, joining the likes of Naomi Osaka, who owns a stake in the North Carolina Courage, and Serena Williams, who's part-owner of Angel City FC. 

Other pro athletes involved in women's sports team ownership include Patrick Mahomes, who shares ownership responsibilities of the Kansas City Current with his wife Brittany. Kevin Durant and Eli Manning are part-owners of Gotham FC, while NFL superstar Tom Brady is part-owner of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.

Nelly Korda Continues Unprecedented LPGA Run

LPGA golfer Nelly Korda poses with Mizuho Americas Open trophy
Nelly Korda took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open on Sunday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Nelly Korda continued her unprecedented LPGA run on Sunday, winning her sixth tournament in the last seven starts. 

The 25-year-old Florida native took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open, becoming the first LPGA player to record six wins in a single season since 2013 — and that’s with three majors and a little over half the season left to play.

"Oh, my gosh, six," Korda said after the win. "I can't even really gather myself right now with that, the head-to-head that Hannah and I had pretty much all day. Wasn't my best stuff out there today, but fought really hard on the back nine."

Korda is just the fourth player on tour to win six times before June 1st, joining LPGA Hall of Famers Babe Zaharias (1951), Louise Suggs (1953), and Lorena Ochoa (2008).

Should her victory run continue, Korda could break the current record for single-season wins, currently set at 13 by Mickey Wright in 1963.

Korda ended Sunday's tournament one shot ahead of Hannah Green, finishing the 18th with a par putt to win it all.

"I mean, to lose to Nelly kind of like is — it's sad, but then it's also Nelly Korda," Green said of her second-place finish. "You know, like she's obviously so dominant right now. To feel like second behind her is quite nice. Unfortunately the bogey on the last has a little bit of a sour taste."

Next up is the US Women’s Open, a tournament that Korda has yet to win in her career. 

"Obviously it's on the top of my priority list," she said. "I just know there is never any good when you put more pressure on yourself. Just going to stay in my bubble that week and take it a shot at a time."

Earlier this year, Korda became the fastest player to collect $2 million in prize money over a single season. This latest win earned her an additional $450,000, bringing her season total up to $2,943,708.

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