We have rosters, we have a schedule, and on Friday the NWSL will officially kick off Year 10 with the third annual Challenge Cup. Almost every team underwent excessive change over the last three months, as two expansion sides joined the league and front office shake-ups prompted more player movement than we’ve ever seen before.
The 2022 Challenge Cup will likely bring unpredictable chaos, but if you’re looking for a rundown on what to watch for as we get our first taste of club soccer in the U.S. in 2022, Just Women’s Sports has you covered.
Is their coach brand new: Freya Coombe was named Gotham FC interim manager in September 2019. She then led the club without the interim tag through 2020, and much of the 2021 season before Angel City poached her in August.
Players you may know: Angel City’s star is Christen Press, who makes her return to the league after spending time in England and away from the sport. Dani Weatherholt will likely anchor the midfield, and watch for former Thorns forward Simone Charley.
Players you get to meet: Angel City has brought in several exciting new faces to the league, including Stefany Ferrer Van Winkel of UANL Tigres, Jun Endo of Nippon TV Tokyo Verdy Beleza, and Vanessa Gilles, formerly of Bordeaux but best-known internationally for her play with Canada at the Tokyo Olympics.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: Don’t underestimate having a coach that understands the NWSL. Angel City has the element of surprise on their side and has assembled a nicely balanced squad. Expansion clubs sometimes play their best games before their opposition has a chance to adapt.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: The preseason injuries to Sarah Gorden and Paige Nielsen are really unfortunate. For a side that had the setup for a quick transition three-back formation, the losses of two starter-level center backs force the team into Plan B before they’ve ever even played a game.
Is their coach brand new: Casey Stoney is well-known in England as both a former player and the manager who brought the Manchester United women’s side to life in 2018.
Players you may know: USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper has been the face of the team as their first official signing. Alex Morgan will be joining her, getting a fresh start after many years with the Orlando Pride. In terms of a big three, the addition of goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is huge for the squad as they try to establish a sturdy defense.
Players you get to meet: San Diego came out of the offseason with a couple of really exciting college draft picks, though not of the same year. In a pre-draft trade with the Chicago Red Stars, the Wave acquired Santa Clara standout Kelsey Turnbow. The team then selected Stanford defender Naomi Girma as the first overall pick of the 2022 draft.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: Good vibes? San Diego still has some serious positional pieces to work out, but signs from camp indicate that the players are gelling in ways they might not have experienced on their former club teams.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: San Diego still has holes to fill in the midfield, and it’s very hard to succeed in the NWSL without a strong one. If the Wave have to resort to long-ball tactics, opponents will likely find them predictable enough to get stuck in and disrupt their style of play.
Is their coach brand new: Rhian Wilkinson is a former NWSL player and Canadian international who finished her playing career with the Thorns. Since then, she’s coached the Canada U-20 team and served in an interim position with the England national team.
Players you may know: You can’t talk about Portland without captain Christine Sinclair. Veteran Emily Menges will hold down the backlin in the absence of Becky Sauerbrunn, who recently had surgery for a torn meniscus. Portland will hope for a breakout tournament from third-year forward Sophia Smith, who’s been in great form during preseason.
Players you get to meet: Portland has some tinkering to do in the midfield without Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. Yazmeen Ryan and Sam Coffey, both selected in the 2021 College Draft, will both get playing time as a result. Fans might also see more of Olivia Moultrie; the 16-year-old had a very good U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament this month.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: They won it last year, albeit with a very different group. Portland’s excellence on the backline will make it difficult for other teams to penetrate, and if they play with a more methodical approach in the midfield and let Smith loose up top, they could be one of the most lethal teams early on.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn are irreplaceable. Wilkinson will also have a natural learning curve in her first games as an NWSL manager, though signs point to the team taking on a more defensive shape to compensate.
Is their coach brand new: You don’t get more OG than Laura Harvey, who coached the Reign in their first four NWSL seasons. She spent time away from the club, first at the Utah Royals and then within the USWNT youth system, but she returned in 2021.
Players you definitely know: OL Reign’s original three of Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes illustrate how one the Reign’s biggest strengths is their veteran core. Sofia Huerta is poised for another big step forward, and Bethany Balcer will be tasked with helping generate an attack that is missing a few big names from last season.
Players you get to meet: Defender Phoebe McClernon joined the squad by way of the Orlando Pride, while Ally Watt will get a chance to reintroduce herself after a few lost years due to injury.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: OL Reign have one of the most consistent rosters going into 2022 and are stacked in many areas of the field. They also have the benefit of Harvey’s steady hand as a coach, which could give them a serious edge in the West division.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: They should be one of the top contenders for the trophy, but the Reign haven’t made a Cup or championship final since 2015. It will take shaking off whatever has held them back in recent years to seal the deal. This might be just the right group to get over that hump.
Is their coach brand new: Chicago hired former SMU coach Chris Petrucelli weeks into preseason. He has experience coaching at the USWNT youth levels and has maintained a steady program within the college ranks, but he has no professional level experience.
Players you may know: Expect Morgan Gautrat’s role as midfield maestro to expand. Tierna Davidson may have the most difficult task in the early going, anchoring a defense that will look very different than the group that led the Red Stars to the 2021 NWSL championship game.
Players you get to meet: Second-year defender Tatumn Milazzo will likely take on even more responsibility in the absence of Casey Krueger. Likewise, 2020 draft pick Ella Stevens will have an expanded role in the team’s attack, and 2022 draft pick Ava Cook could also get a look.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: The Red Stars have always been full of surprises. The midfield’s play gives the team a chance at success in every game, and if they advance to the knockout stages, there’s no reason to think they can’t make another final.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: Chicago lost a lot of talent in the offseason and didn’t get much back in return. While the remaining veterans can compete with anybody, depth is a big issue and doesn’t necessarily bode well for getting out of the group stage.
Is their coach brand new: Kim Bjorkegren, the Swedish manager who has coached in China and in Cyprus, was hired early in the offseason. Subsequently, he has had more of a hand in Louisville’s roster operations than most other new coaches.
Players you may know: Defenders Gemma Bonner and Emily Fox were named to the team’s captaincy group this week, alongside Nadia Nadim — who, while injured, will be a major presence as a leader. Louisville will also look for further growth from Ebony Salmon, who showed flashes of brilliance last year.
Players you get to meet: Jessica McDonald playing in lavender is a big deal, and she’s going to be key when it comes to linking with Salmon and helping a young group develop behind her. Jaelin Howell, the team’s 2022 No. 2 pick, will be tasked right away with filling in at the No. 6, a space Racing left exposed too many times in 2021.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: In these sorts of Cup competitions, youthful fearlessness can go a long way. Fox has been known to set the tone as a roving outside back/midfielder, and if her energy can make its way to the rest of the squad, they might have a few surprises up their sleeve.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: Louisville is in the process of improving from a 2021 season that started strong and faded over time. It might be in their best interest not to chase results this time around, and take the pressure off the players to build for the long-term future.
Is their coach brand new: James Clarkson is currently one of the longest-tenured NWSL coaches, having served in the role since 2019. Clarkson has turned the club around with his approach, but he has yet to lead the team past the high of their 2020 Challenge Cup win.
Players you may know: Canadian veteran Sophie Schmidt will pair with Katie Naughton on Houston’s backline. 2020 Challenge Cup hero Shea Groom will be key in the midfield, namely forming connections with England international Rachel Daly.
Players you get to meet: All eyes are on Maria Sánchez, who rejoins the league after a very successful stint in Liga MX Femenil. She’ll be tasked with filling the space left by Kristie Mewis and providing a spark Houston will need to make it out of the group stage.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: When the Dash are at their best, they’re unbeatable. What they struggled with most in 2021 was consistency, but the nice thing about Challenge Cups is a surge of form can make all the difference.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: We aren’t going to know what Houston looks like without Kristie Mewis until we see it, and a new defensive partnership takes time. Depth will be a concern hanging for the Dash.
From the World Cup stage to Kansas City. @sammymewy is ready for her next chapter.Sam Mewis | #15 | Midfielder pic.twitter.com/6H7kVBQt0A— KC Current (@thekccurrent) March 1, 2022
From the World Cup stage to Kansas City. @sammymewy is ready for her next chapter.Sam Mewis | #15 | Midfielder pic.twitter.com/6H7kVBQt0A
Is their coach brand new: Matt Potter was hired by the team in the offseason after Huw Williams stepped back into a front-office role. Potter has experience as a college coach and was an assistant in the USWNT system.
Players you may know: This is not the Utah Royals roster Kansas City inherited last year. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch will provide a steady presence in goal, and Desiree Scott will be key as an anchor in the midfield.
Players you get to meet: It’s hard to imagine Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis playing for any team other than North Carolina, but the “Snacks” duo will provide a huge boost to Kansas City’s ability to move the ball and finish chances.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: Kansas City’s stats looked pretty good by the end of the 2021 regular season, and if they can match results with what they’re generating between the lines, they have a chance to become a real contender.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: An expansion team in spirit if not in name last year, Kansas City reminded us that these kinds of projects take time, and might not be finished ahead of the regular season.
Is their coach brand new: Scott Parkinson has more experience than most. He was an NWSL assistant in both Utah and Chicago, and he steered Gotham to the playoffs in 2021.
Players you may know: Gotham held onto many of their stars in the 2021 offseason. Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu will continue their partnership up top, and Caprice Dydasco will look to back up her 2021 Defender of the Year campaign.
Players you get to meet: Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, welcome to New York. The connections Kristie Mewis forms with Purce and Onumonu will be critical for Gotham’s attack.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: Gotham’s moves this offseason look good on paper, in terms of both positional need and veteran leadership. They’ll want to go for every available trophy with this group, and they have a prime opportunity to improve upon their Cup final appearance in 2021.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: Similar to Mewis’ place in Houston, I don’t know what Gotham’s defense looks like without Kailen Sheridan. They had a method to their madness last season that led to an outsized ability to block shots. Harris’ ability to gel with Gotham’s established backline will be key.
Is their coach brand new: As a head coach, yes. Sean Nahas is a longtime North Carolina assistant coach who had the support of the player pool in the wake of Paul Riley’s dismissal last year.
Players you may know: North Carolina is Debinha’s team now. The Brazilian wunderkind will have to take over a midfield that is now permanently missing Sam Mewis, and score goals with a frontline that no longer features Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams. The Courage will rely on Abby Erceg and Casey Murphy to steady the defense.
Players you get to meet: This will hopefully be fans’ first real look at 2021 draft pick Brianna Pinto, who never fully settled in at Gotham before joining North Carolina in the offseason. Malia Berkely and Kiki Pickett could also prove to be savvy pick-ups.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: The Courage are underdogs in this competition, and that could prove to be a galvanizing force. The Courage have also built a roster of undervalued talent that might shock a few opponents.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: This is as close to a full rebuild as the Courage have ever attempted, and trying to force the whole package together this early in the year might be a risky strategy. North Carolina will benefit from the new players getting minutes and learning from them.
Is their coach brand new: To the professional game, yes. Amanda Cromwell took something of a leap of faith this year, jumping from a very comfortable position as UCLA’s longtime coach to guide the Pride through their rebuild.
Players you may know: Sydney Leroux returns after a resurgent 2021 season, and Marta will continue to make things happen in the midfield.
Players you get to meet: Not as many as the Pride might have liked. They picked up Megan Montefusco (née Oyster) from the Houston Dash, and the 29-year-old will be an anchor on their defense, alongside Celia Jimenez Delgado. The larger story of the offseason was Orlando’s loss of top 2022 draft pick Mia Fishel, who chose to play for Tigres instead.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: The Pride actually played quite well in a direct style in the early stages of the 2021 regular season, and they might be able to pull off a few upsets using that same style this year.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: The Pride are mid-rebuild, and not every break has gone their way in player retention. The group will get valuable experience before preseason begins, and the goal has to be as much about evaluation as results.
Is their coach brand new: Not anymore. Kris Ward joined the Spirit on an interim basis midseason last year after the removal of Richie Burke. In something of a miraculous run, the team has yet to lose under his tenure, and his interim tag was removed in the offseason.
Players you may know: The Spirit have retained almost every player from their 2021 NWSL championship team. Kelley O’Hara, Sam Staab and Emily Sonnett all return to the backline. The midfield and attack are similarly stacked: Andi Sullivan leads the team from the No. 6 position, and Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez and Ashley Hatch are all in peak form after stints with the national team.
Players you get to meet: By nature of a steady offseason, fewer than other teams. They did pick up some veteran depth in goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart and defender Amber Brooks, and they signed 2022 14th overall pick Tinaya Alexander.
Why they’ll win the Challenge Cup: In my opinion, anything less is a disappointment in D.C. The Spirit are riding the momentum of their 2021 championship win, and that group remains almost completely intact, led by a coach whom they trust.
Why they won’t win the Challenge Cup: There was an element of magic to the Spirit’s unbeaten run last year, and they’re going to have to get used to being the favorites. They’ll also miss the playmaking ability of Tori Huster, forcing other players to step up.
Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.