The fourth annual NWSL Challenge Cup preview

April 19, 2023
The fourth annual Challenge Cup kicks off tonight with an exciting new format and 10 of the league’s 12 teams in action.
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SOURCE: MADDIE MEYER/GETTY IMAGES
SOURCE: MADDIE MEYER/GETTY IMAGES

🔙 The history

The NWSL Challenge Cup made history when it launched in 2020. After sporting events around the world were postponed because of COVID-19, the NWSL created the Challenge Cup as an innovative way to return to action. The tourney kicked off that June, which made the NWSL the first U.S. sports league to resume play during the pandemic.

  • The inaugural Challenge Cup was the first of many bubble tournaments in the States, and the NWSL pulled it off with aplomb — not a single person onsite in Utah tested positive for COVID-19 during the month-long competition.

As for the tourney format, teams were randomly drawn against each other for the 2020 edition before heading into knockout action, but the structure began to resemble traditional soccer formatting in the following years with squads sorted into groups based on their geography.

  • And now, this year’s action is bringing another major change. While the last two editions of the Challenge Cup served as preseason competition, the NWSL is changing things up for 2023. On that note…

⚙️ How it works

SOURCE: NWSL

Starting this year, the NWSL Challenge Cup will run concurrently with the regular season: a change that aligns with most other major soccer leagues across the world — the regular season is still the main focus, but the cup action earns its own calendar slots and gives each team an extra trophy to chase each year.

In terms of structure, teams are placed into three groups of four and will play each group stage opponent twice — once at home and once away. The top team from each group will advance to the September semis, where they’ll be joined by the best overall second-place team.

  • The group stage will run until August 6th, which means several NWSL stars will likely miss a few matches while at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. Fret not, though — it’ll offer a chance for the league’s other standouts to take center stage.

And when it comes to prize money, the Challenge Cup is making history again this year. New sponsor UKG doubled the prize pool to $1M for 2023 — a number that matches the earnings from the MLS is Back Tournament in 2020 and makes this the first U.S. women’s soccer tourney to reach parity. About damn time.

⚽ Zooming out

SOURCE: KEN MURRAY/ICON SPORTSWIRE VIA GETTY IMAGES

It’s no coincidence that the Challenge Cup is bigger and better this year. The alignment with traditional soccer standards demonstrates that the NWSL is ready to be perceived as a major power in the sport, and it’s a sign that the league wants to invest in itself.

Prospective stakeholders are taking notice. Sponsors and new ownership groups are responding to the NWSL’s upgrades and rapid growth by spending big. In addition to UKG’s major investment in the Challenge Cup, CarMax doubled the prize money for the best regular season team, and Ally is using its power to help the NWSL score more TV time.

The best news of all? This injection of cash will change the game for NWSL players. The aforementioned Carson Pickett described the $10K bonus she earned as a 2022 Challenge Cup champ as the type of money that “changes people’s lives.”

  • In a profession where women still aren’t paid their due — even with the recent increase in salary cap, the league minimum is still a mere $36.4K — new investment from sponsors and owners will only improve the landscape for players.
  • This is especially important as the league continues to perform corrective action to ensure systemic abuse is truly a thing of the NWSL’s past. Protecting the players is paramount.

📺 How to watch

SOURCE: MEG OLIPHANT/GETTY IMAGES FOR ANGEL CITY FC

The action gets underway tonight at 7 p.m. ET when the Orlando Pride hosts the Courage, but if one match isn’t enough, don’t worry — the NWSL has another four on the schedule.

  • While most of tonight’s fixtures will air on Paramount+ in the U.S., two will be on CBS Sports Network — the Dash vs. the Kansas City Current at 7:30 p.m. ET and Angel City FC vs. OL Reign at 10 p.m. ET. In Canada, select games will be aired on TSN or TSN+.

And if you’re looking for a primer on how each team might fare, check out our handy-dandy team-by-team preseason preview. Let the games begin.

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