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NWSL Challenge Cup will take place in-season after scheduling, injury concerns

Washington Spirit athletic trainer Summer Jones calls for the stretcher for injured Washington Spirit defender Jordan Baggett during the 2022 Challenge Cup final. (Lewis Gettier/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL’s Challenge Cup tournament will run during the regular season for the first time in 2023, the league announced Thursday afternoon.

The tournament began in 2020 in replacement of the regular season, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021 and 2022, the tournament took place in the preseason.

During the 2022 Challenge Cup, though, players raised concerns about the packed scheduling and the potential for injuries as a result of the preseason event.

OL Reign star Jess Fishlock called out the NWSL via Twitter in April over her team’s scheduling woes.

As the top seed entering the Challenge Cup knockout stage, OL Reign earned home-field advantage for the semifinals. But instead the fourth-seeded Washington Spirit hosted the match, as the Seattle Sounders had a match already scheduled for Lumen Field on the date in question.

The winners of the semifinal matches — the Spirit and the North Carolina Courage — then played in the championship match three days later, during the first weekend of the regular season. As a result, their regular-season openers were bumped to later in the season.

Fishlock’s OL Reign teammate Bethany Balcer took to Twitter herself to call out the NWSL and CBS for the start time of the final, which was played at 1 p.m. ET.

“If you really cared about women’s sports you would actually put us at prime time,” Balcer tweeted at the NWSL and at CBS, which will televise the championship. “Thanks in advance!”

Balcer also expressed dismay that the Challenge Cup knockout stage overlaps with the regular season, which starts on April 29.

“Where is the COMMON SENSE,” Balcer tweeted. “Now your reward for making the Challenge Cup final is having to play three games in seven days… I cannot sit idly by as the well being of the player’s is put in jeopardy by bogus kickoff times and high physical demand. Let’s be better.”

In addition to the scheduling concerns, injuries hung over the 2022 Challenge Cup throughout its run.

Several high-profile stars, including the Kansas City Current’s Lynn Williams and the Orlando Pride’s Marta, went down with season-ending injuries. During the final, North Carolina’s Kerolin and Washington’s Jordan Baggett exited the game with injuries.

The 2023 Challenge Cup will kick off in April, after the start of the regular season on March 25, the NWSL announced Thursday.

The the tournament will take place across six weeks scattered across the regular season from April to September. Three groups of four teams will play double round-robin schedules, for a total of six games per team.

Then four group winners will then face off in the semifinal round on Sept. 6, and the final will take place on Sept. 9.

The 2023 Challenge Cup also stands out for achieving pay equity with the equivalent men’s tournament. As part of a three-year deal, title sponsor UKG will help the NWSL increase the prize pool available to teams, raising the bonuses to equal footing with the men’s U.S. Open Cup.