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NWSL Challenge Cup takeaways: Rethinking the format in 2024

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Captain Denise O'Sullivan and the North Carolina Courage raise the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup trophy. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

After the final whistle blew in North Carolina’s 2-0 Challenge Cup final victory over Racing Louisville on Saturday, the collective energy held both jubilation and relief. The Challenge Cup is a recent staple of the NWSL calendar, an in-season competition that has uplifted and strained the boundaries of what a domestic competition can look like in the U.S.

With changes to the Challenge Cup possibly on the horizon in 2024, let’s take a look at what the 2023 competition meant not just for its winner, but also the NWSL as a whole.

North Carolina is going to be just fine

With record prize money on the line, sometimes the main takeaway from a Cup competition begins and ends with the winner. This year, the Courage took the crown, adding a second-straight Challenge Cup title to their long list of NWSL championship wins and earning a payout from the $1 million prize pool. The win can serve as a galvanizing force for a talented squad firmly in the mix for a playoff spot, currently in third place in the regular season standings.

The Courage’s past success rightfully looms large over everything the current team does. What head coach Sean Nahas has managed to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time is to mold a group that plays with the same core, on-field values as the titans of 2017-19, while letting his current roster be themselves.

Brazil superstar Kerolin was her typical excellent self on Saturday, but the young players around her are the foundation of what North Carolina hopes will turn into many trophies in the future. It’s no secret the Courage have lost an immense amount of talent through requested trades and free agency in recent years, but their acquisitions have quietly come together to form a balanced group ready to prove itself. Brianna Pinto’s game-winner in the team’s Challenge Cup semifinal gave the team a necessary boost, and 19-year-old midfielder Manaka Matsukubo enjoyed her star moment with a brilliant strike to seal the victory in the final and win MVP.

In 2022, the tolls of North Carolina’s Challenge Cup victory early in the regular season appeared to haunt them as they fell out of playoff contention. This year, it could be the force that propels them to new heights.

A change in format is probably necessary

There have been reports that 2023 was the final iteration of the Challenge Cup in its current format, and issues during the knockout rounds highlighted why the NWSL is likely rethinking the future of the competition. Originally created to replace a COVID-19 pandemic-disrupted regular season in 2020, and then to mitigate regular season risks in 2021, the Cup has been an awkward fit the last two years.

Managers across the league have bemoaned the strain on their limited squad depth when adding games to the schedule. Though a more balanced approach to mid-week games softened the blow in 2023, a number of clubs seemed to prioritize simple rotation over going far in the Challenge Cup. It’s hard to fault managers for favoring the prizes of the regular season, but those decisions did produce an element of viewership fatigue.

That fatigue extended to players themselves, as travel and TV issues pervaded what was supposed to be the crowning week for the Cup. A 12:30 ET broadcast slot on CBS strained the concept of the top seed hosting the final — OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer noted on social media that if the West Coast club had taken the top spot, they would have been forced to travel cross-country on short rest anyway. The Courage, who did end up hosting the final, then dealt with a short turnaround to drum up local support for an extra game put on the schedule at the last minute.

As fate would have it, the Challenge Cup never made it all the way through its network TV time slot, with a weather delay pushing the match to digital streaming services. The NWSL should realistically look for more programming than a one 22-game season, but as it negotiates new broadcasting deals, this competitive sacrifice at the hands of short-term TV goals would be better left in the past.

The Challenge Cup also has its uses

Despite lingering logistical problems, the Challenge Cup did showcase its value during a major tournament year. The NWSL took just two match weekends off during the World Cup, but the Cup allowed them to avoid regular season matches from July 10 to Aug. 17, meaning that international stars missed far fewer season games than in previous cycles.

The flexibility provided by the Challenge Cup has brought about one of the closest Shield and playoff races in history. Instead of teams being punished for losing their stars during the World Cup, they got to welcome those players back with the league table mostly intact. That approach preserves the integrity of the competition and keeps top players who don’t want to miss their national team camps or club games happy.

The Challenge Cup also provides an NWSL-sanctioned opportunity to win another trophy, which should be prioritized even if the format of the tournament changes in the future. Players often talk about domestic or regional competitions as a draw of playing in Europe, and the NWSL will need to continue to keep pace with their international counterparts. Opening a Cup up to lower-tier club teams in the U.S., or even expanding to other regions in the Western Hemisphere (particularly Liga MX Femenil), would help add prestige to trophy opportunities outside of the NWSL Shield and championship title.

The NWSL doesn’t have the ability to create a Champions League on its own: Concacaf would have to help make that a reality. But they can look to create competitive variety for fans to enjoy and cater to advantages elsewhere. Racing Louisville’s run to the Cup final is one that clubs should be trying to emulate, rather than shy away from.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.