With the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup returning after a brief international break, we look back at what’s gone down in the tournament so far, while also looking ahead to some exciting matchups down the road.
Cue the Chaos. That’s been the NWSL’s tagline for the 2022 Challenge Cup, and with good reason. Whether it’s editions from years past or the current one, there have been plenty of exciting — and yes, chaotic — moments in what has now become an annual event for the league.
We’re now just beyond the halfway point of this year’s tournament, and after a week-and-a-half long international break, the action is set to start back up again tomorrow. With that in mind, we take a look back at what’s gone down so far, as well as some upcoming exciting matchups that we have circled on our calendar.
North Carolina Courage
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) April 3, 2022
It’s one of the most storied NWSL franchises of all time, but we predicted the North Carolina Courage to struggle in this Challenge Cup as it had gotten rid of many of the faces that were responsible for its vast success. Players like Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, and Jessica McDonald are all on new teams, yet the Courage still find themselves on top of a group that includes the stacked reigning NWSL champs in the Washington Spirit.
Debinha has continued to show us why she’s one of the most dangerous players in the league, while second-year players Kiki Pickett and Brianna Pinto have each been stellar as well.
With all of the turmoil and roster turnover the team has faced over the past few seasons, it’s great to see the Courage back in familiar territory. We’ll see if they can maintain their success though the second half of the Challenge Cup and into the regular season.
Kansas City Current
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) March 31, 2022
Unlike North Carolina, Kansas City doesn’t have a track record of success, which is why we thought the club would also have a difficult go in the 2022 Challenge Cup. However, the influx of new players including Mewis and Williams from the Courage, have provided the Current a boost as they sit second in the Central group, tied with the first-place Red Stars in points (7).
However, with Williams going down with a season-ending injury (more on that later), expect the attacking load to shift over to Kristen Hamilton, who already has a pair of goals through the first four games.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) April 3, 2022
It’s easy to forget how young Mallory Pugh is. After bursting onto the scene as a teenager, Pugh has been hampered by injuries that kept her off of the pitch for most of 2019 and 2020. However, she was able to bounce back in 2021, her first full NWSL season, and played a big role in the Chicago Red Stars’ run to the NWSL Championship game. She seems to have returned to her top form in the 2022 Challenge Cup, as she’s currently leading the league with four goals — as many as she scored last season.
Pugh’s talent has never been a question. If she can remain healthy throughout the season, we might see the league takeover many expected from her when she skipped college to turn pro in 2017.
One of the “fixes” to women’s soccer posed by many morons is to make the goals smaller. Similar to lowering the hoop for women’s basketball, this insulting notion would change the way the sport is played, forcing many to re-learn the game they grew up playing. Oh yeah, also the women have the regulation-sized goals covered.
In the West group alone, play from Kailen Sheridan, Bella Bixby, DiDi Haracic, and Phallon Tullis-Joyce has been absolute top notch, producing saves like this point-blank stop from Haracic and this unbelievable sprawling leap from Sheridan.
The next time someone suggests they mAkE tHE GoALs SMalLeR, play this Save of the Week clip from a few weeks ago.
— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) March 28, 2022
The injury bug has bitten the NWSL hard. In addition to Williams, Orlando Pride’s Marta and Chicago Red Stars’ Tierna Davidson all went down with season-ending leg injuries within two weeks of one another. Angel City FC’s Sarah Gorden tore her ACL in preseason camp. Becky Sauerbrunn underwent surgery for a torn meniscus earlier this year, although she is expected to return in time for the start of the 2022 regular season.
Meanwhile, Megan Rapinoe continues to recover from nagging injuries, and Kealia Watt is still out with a torn ACL sustained in last year’s championship game.
This slew of injuries — particularly the one to Marta, who’s been a paragon of longevity throughout her career — has seen fans offering to donate ligaments and muscles of their own to these players. If only it worked like that…
Paramount+ NWSL broadcast team: pic.twitter.com/Kou1rWmh7h
— NWSL Challenge Cup Sun Glare (@CupGlare) March 26, 2022
Now in its third year of existence, the NWSL Challenge Cup has become known for its shoddy broadcast quality as much as it has for its chaotic and exciting on-pitch play. The solar glare from the inaugural tournament in Utah was so bad that it inspired its own Twitter account, which has become popular amongst die-hard fans of the league.
Poor camera work and quality, misspelled player names, and questionable commentary have unfortunately become the norm for Challenge Cup broadcasts. As NWSL viewership continues to churn out strong numbers, hopefully the league can land a more lucrative media rights deal that would bring with it a higher standard of quality.
Angel City FC
We knew it was going to take some time for expansion side Angel City FC to get settled in. And while there have been some bright moments — Christen Press’ return to the league, Simone Charley’s immediate impact, and the work rates of Jasmyne Spencer and Tyler Lussi — Angel City has struggled mightily in its first four games.
A lack of midfield fortitude has seen the club post the worst goal differential (-7) in the league so far, and the team has struggled to create a consistent offensive identity despite an array of promising attacking players.
There has been plenty working against the team however, including injuries to key figures including Charley, Gorden, and Paige Nielsen among others, and the team had to play without Savannah McCaskill against Portland after a questionable red card in its second match against OL Reign.
The good news is that this is a preseason tournament, and while it would’ve been nice to make a statement and win the whole thing, the real objective for head coach Freya Coombe and Co. was to get in-game experience for the brand new squad. However, Coombe’s reluctance to shuffle the lineup is perplexing. Even though the coach is known for her relative lack of sub utilization, young players like rookie Lily Nabet and Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel could definitely benefit from valuable preseason playing time. Here’s to hoping we see them among others in the lineup through the club’s final two matches.
What to Watch For
April 14: Reign v. Wave
Coming off an impressive 4-2 win over Angel City, can the Wave continue their momentum against the Reign, who have looked pretty impressive over their first three matches? This will be the first of two matchups between these two teams in the second half, with the second leg coming on April 23.
Our prediction: 3-1 Reign
April 23: Spirit v. Courage
The first matchup between the Spirit and Courage didn’t disappoint, and neither should this one. In what may very well decide the winner of the East group, don’t expect either side to pull any punches.
Our prediction: 2-1 Spirit
April 24: Red Stars v. Current
Similar to the Spirit-Courage matchup, the meeting between the top two Central teams should be a high octane tie. Things will be interesting if Sam Mewis is healthy enough to play, although it’s uncertain when she’ll be ready to return from her knee injury.
Expect Pugh to continue her hot streak, though she will have her hands full going up against Current keeper Adrianna Franch.
Our prediction: 1-0 Red Stars