Previewing the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup: The Who, How, and What (Maybe)

Set to commence this weekend, we preview the always action-packed NWSL Challenge Cup.

In a couple of days, meaningful NWSL action returns to a pitch near you. That we’d definitely get here wasn’t always a guarantee, however. Negotiations between NWSL players and the league dominated the offseason, and threatened the start not only of training camp, but the season itself. Ultimately, on January 31, the NWSLPA and the NWSL agreed on a first-ever collective bargaining agreement, which provides players with greater financial and non-financial compensation, and (hopefully) a more hospitable working environment than the one that systematically enabled a laundry list of abuses.

Along with the league and players, we can now turn our attention to the pitch. The league’s six-week training camp is in the books, and the regular season — now with a balanced 22-game schedule, down from 24 — begins in mid-/late-May (the official NWSL schedule has yet to be released). The months in between will be devoted to the third annual NWSL Challenge Cup, which kicks off this Friday, March 18.

The Challenge Cup was first held in 2020, as a one-off to mark the league’s return to action after the COVID-19 stoppage. In that first tournament, each of the NWSL’s then-nine teams played a four-game schedule, to determine participants and seedings for an eight-team, single-elimination bracket. On July 26, 2020, behind goals from Sophie Schmidt and Shea Groom, the Houston Dash defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 to capture the first-ever NWSL Challenge Cup.

Building off of the inaugural tournament’s success, the competition returned in 2021, this time with the league’s 10 teams separated into two groups of five. The teams sitting atop each group after four group games — NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Portland Thorns — qualified for the final. They tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, after which Portland won the cup via penalty shoot-out.

With the league welcoming two new teams — Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave — for the 2022 season, the tournament’s undergone yet another change in format. This time, 12 teams are split into three groups (East, Central, and West Divisions) of four apiece. The format for the group stage is double round-robin, meaning that each team plays six games within its group, worth a standard three points per win, and one point per draw. The three group winners and the highest finishing second-place team (determined by points, with goal difference, goals scored, and head-to-head results serving as tiebreakers, if necessary) advancing to a four-team, single-elimination knockout stage. Two semifinals will be played on May 4, with the final taking place on May 7. As before, knockout matches will not go into extra time. If one of the semifinals or the final is tied after the first 90, it will be decided via penalties.

That’s the how of it all. Now let’s take a look at who will be taking part, and what may ultimately go down:

East Division (listed in expected order of finish in group play)

Group winner: Washington Spirit


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Let’s not overthink this.

The defending NWSL Cup champions, who posted the third-best regular season in 2021, come back with a pair of experienced World Cup winners in defense (Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett), a midfield featuring the 2018 draft’s No. 1 overall pick (Andi Sullivan) and the No. 3 pick in 2019 (Jordan Baggett), plus the 2021 NWSL Golden Boot winner (10 regular season goals), Ashley Hatch.

All that, and no mention of the league’s reigning Rookie of the Year, U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Player of the Year, NWSL Best XI selection, and best-player-in-the-league-to-be (if not already), Trinity Rodman. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: In every meaningful way, Rodman is the platonic ideal of a young superstar. She plays a mature game, is agile, explosive, unselfish, clinical, and supremely confident. And she doesn’t turn 20 for another two months.

NJ/NY Gotham FC


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The Gotham team that ended with the fifth-best regular season record in 2021 returns Imani Dorsey, NWSL Best XI selection Caprice Dydasco, Sabrina Flores, Mandy Freeman, Estelle Johnson, and veteran Gina Lewandowski in defense; Nicole Baxter, Jennifer Cudjoe, Allie Long, Domi Richardson, and McCall Zerboni in midfield; and a dangerous mix up front consisting of Nahomi Kawasumi, Paige Monaghan, Midge Purce, whose nine goals were good enough to finish as a joint runner-up in the Golden Boot race, and Ifeoma Onumonu, who led the league in goal contributions (12) and was one of two players (with Rodman) to finish top-10 in both goals and assists.

To that crew, Gotham FC adds two-time World Cup winners in defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, USWNT midfielder Kristie Mewis, and star Japanese forward Kumi Yokohama.

This team will rely more than most on veterans, but that also brings a wealth of talent and championship pedigree. Once again, expect Gotham to be a contender in 2022.

North Carolina Courage

2022 continues an organizational overhaul that the North Carolina Courage kicked off last season, with the September firing of deeply problematic head coach Paul Riley. The team named Sean Nahas head coach, initially on an interim basis, then, over the offseason, made the appointment permanent, and on-boarded sports industry veteran Francie Gottsegen as President.

The Courage, who entered 2021 as back-to-back NWSL Cup champions, stumbled to sixth-place in the regular season and just eked into the playoffs. Despite battling eventual champs Washington for 120 minutes, N.C.’s playoff appearance was but a cameo.

After trading Crystal Dunn prior to last season, three more key players of the Courage’s dominant run will be missing in 2022 — Samantha Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Jessica McDonald. They’ve been replaced by young prospects, but unfortunately, not one of them is a proven striker. Debinha is an excellent creator and finisher, but is facing a lot of pressure to carry the attack from midfield.

Fellow Brazil international and summer signee (from Madrid CFF, in the Spanish top flight), 22-year-old Kerolin, may slot right in and begin contributing. However, as she wasn’t even in the States yet as of March 11, that’s more a hope for the regular season than the Challenge Cup.

Orlando Pride


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The Orlando Pride also kick off the 2022 season with a new head coach Amanda Cromwell, and an overhauled roster. Gone from 2021’s eighth-place squad are a host of stars and regulars: the aforementioned power couple of Harris and Krieger, defenders Ali Riley and Phoebe McClernon; midfielders Marisa Viggiano and Taylor Kornieck; and USWNT great Alex Morgan. On top of all of that, the club failed to sign No. 5 overall pick Mia Fishel, who’s since signed to play in Mexico.

The newcomers — forwards Darian Jenkins and Leah Pruitt, midfielder Anghard James, and defenders Celia Jiménez Delgado and Megan Montefusco, plus No. 10 overall pick Caitlin Cosme — don’t bring enough to the table to offset those losses. As good as Sydney Leroux is, and as good as Marta still is, there’s clearly a rebuild underway in Orlando.

Central Division

Group winner: Chicago Red Stars


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The Red Stars are another club undergoing massive turnover as a result of long overdue corrective action against abusive practices by a disgraced former head coach.

Rory Dames, who’d been the only manager in club history, resigned hours after the Red Stars’ 2021 NWSL Championship loss to Washington. Shortly after, allegations against him of verbal abuse and harassment against his players were revealed. At the very least, the timing of the exit left the club plenty of time to find a replacement, which… was squandered. It wasn’t until February 18 that the club finally hired Chris Petrucelli, formerly of Southern Methodist University.

In light of Dames’ abuses and the longtime lack of organizational response, several key players — Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, Katie Johnson, Mackenzy Doniak, Nikki Stanton and goalkeeper Cassie Miller — were traded, in most cases as a result of player request.

In their places came…veteran Japanese striker Yuki Nagasato. That’s about it.

Though the top of the roster — Alyssa Naeher, Mallory Pugh, Kealia Watt, Sarah Woldmoe, and Tierna Davidson — is excellent, there’s not much depth here. It’s an issue that could leave the Red Stars behind the eight ball during the regular season. However, if they can keep that top four healthy, going on a run for eight games over two months is not out of the question.

Racing Louisville

As tough a task as it must be to navigate a competitive league as an expansion team, to do so around the midseason firing (for unspecified cause) of your head coach tends to make things even more difficult. On the heels of a tumultuous inaugural season, Racing Louisville is looking to improve on a second-to-last finish.

The club enters the 2022 season with a new head coach, noted tactician Kim Björkegren, and two of the top four picks from the draft — defensive midfielder Jaelin Howell and attacking midfielder Savannah DeMelo — plus veteran forward Jessica McDonald, formerly of the Courage.

Those newcomers join attackers Ebony Salmon and CeCe Kizer, and rising star defender Emily Fox to form one of the best young cores in the league. If Björkegren, who’s won league titles in both Sweden (2017) and Cyrpus (2021), finds a game plan that harnesses the young talent at his disposal, Racing should make a run at a playoff spot.

Kansas City Current


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Returning experience and continuity from a previous season is generally a good thing. However, when you finish last, as Kansas City did in 2021, it’s usually a good indicator that it’s time to make some changes.

Kansas City didn’t just change its name in the offseason, it made some significant personnel additions — including a new head coach and general manager, and high profile veterans in Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch (a mid-season acquisition in 2021).

When a team has this much turnover, there are rightful questions both about whether the new pieces will fit together, and just how long that process will take. Over the long haul of the regular season, don’t be surprised if second-year club Kansas City is battling for a playoff berth. A quick cup competition like this, however, is probably asking too much, too soon.

Houston Dash


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Houston’s victory in the inaugural Challenge Cup in 2020 is an outlier in a near-decade-long run of mediocrity. In seven NWSL seasons since their 2014 founding (there was no regular season in 2020), the Dash have never finished above fifth, never qualified for the playoffs (that fifth-place finish came when four teams made the playoffs), and have only twice finished with a non-negative goal difference (29-29 in 2016; and 31-31 last season).

In 2021, the Dash came closer to the playoffs than ever before. With three games left, they needed a single point to secure a playoff berth. However, they were held scoreless three times, and ultimately undone in the season finale by a late Trinity Rodman winner. So, in addition to the normal questions about talent, the Dash may now be carrying a psychological millstone.

This season, they’re without midfielder Kristie Mewis, though they’ve made Maria Sanchez’s move from Mexico permanent. The smooth and technically-gifted winger should offer nice support for striker Rachel Daly. However, an issue with depth of quality up front, combined with an uninspiring back line suggest this season (and this tournament) will be an uphill battle.

West Division

Group winner: OL Reign


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Given turnover in the NWSL coaching ranks this offseason, OL Reign, who made their own change during the 2021 season, seem like a model of continuity. In a sense, that’s totally fair.

The team played well in the regular season under Laura Harvey, and returns a quantity of quality that few teams can match. Though midfield star Eugénie Le Sommer has returned to her and the Reign’s parent club (French giants Lyon), OL Reign still features arguably the best midfield in the league, headed by 2021 MVP Jess Fishlock, the incomparable Rose Lavelle, and Canadian star Quinn. In addition, the Reign boast a first-team Best XI defender in Alana Cook and a second-teamer in right back Sofia Huerta, and one of the league’s most prolific strikers in Bethany Balcer.

In a group setting with a talented but possibly unsettled Portland team and a pair of expansion sides, it’s tough to see anyone else emerging at the top.

Portland Thorns


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Following their own organizational housecleaning, the 2021 Challenge Cup winners (and regular season table-toppers) have a new head coach — former Thorns player and ex-Canadian national team star Rhiann Wilkinson — to go along with a new-look roster. Gone via the expansion draft are forwards Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi, and defender Christen Westphal, while star midfielder Lindsey Horan went out on an 18-month loan to Lyon. Meanwhile, Angela Salem retired after 12 seasons in the NWSL.

Not a lot of new faces were brought in as reinforcements, though if you’ve got Sophia Smith (seven goals and the league-leader in shots on target in 2021) and Morgan Weaver, in front of a solid (if slightly diminished) midfield and defense, you’ve always got a chance.

Reckoning with the organization’s chaotic past, welcoming a new head coach, and bidding farewell to numerous notable faces, it’s reasonable to assume that this team will take a step back. At the same time, purging some organizational toxicity may actually serve as a galvanizing force, and allow this talented group to play freely. 

Angel City FC


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Head coach Freya Coombe, who guided Gotham FC to the 2021 Challenge Cup final, will try to replicate that feat with expansion side Angel City FC. Unlike their fellow newcomers in San Diego, Angel City opted to use draft capital to acquire veterans via trade, presumably to compete right away.

Thus, the club didn’t make a selection in the first two rounds of the draft. However, Angel City kicks off the season with a talented, veteran-laden roster: Savannah McCaskill, Dani Weatherholt, and Cari Roccaro in midfield, and Christen Press and Jasmyne Spencer in attack. The notable exception to this philosophy is 21-year-old Japan international Jun Endo, who’s got experience beyond her years.

With an attack headlined by Press, who returns to the NWSL after two years away (didn’t play club football in 2020, and spent last season with Manchester United) and Spencer, with Endo in support, to go along with proven NWSL and international stars behind them, it’s not tough to see the bones of a competitive team here. However, given the new faces that must be integrated — literally all of them — this is another club whose talent and experience is more likely to find its stride in the regular season than in this cup competition.

San Diego Wave FC


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The other expansion team, also from California, have also brought in top-end talent and experienced players to make up the backbone of the roster: Olympic gold medal-winning (and First Team NWSL Best XI selection) Kailen Sheridan starts in goal. In front of her are defenders Abby Dahlkemeper (NWSL’s Defender of the Year in 2018), Kristen McNabb, newly-crowned champion Tegan McGrady, and 2020’s U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year and No. 1 overall draft pick, Naomi Girma. The front line, meanwhile, will be led by Alex Morgan, who you may have heard of.

It doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to see a good team emerging from this roster. However despite the Wave’s quality in midfield, there’s a lack of depth. Meanwhile, despite a large number of attacking options, outside of Morgan, there’s a notable lack of relative youth and productivity. Combine all of that with the fact that it’s been at least three years since Dahlkemeper was playing regularly, and playing well (she had a tough time in Houston and the Olympics last year). That’s a fair few questions.

Now, every one of these could break right for the Wave. But, by and large, that’s not how this stuff usually works.

Who Advances?

Topping the groups, let’s go with the Washington Spirit and OL Reign winning two-team races — with the Reign locking up the top spot — and the Chicago Red Stars emerging from a three-team free-for-all in the Central.

The race for the “best second-place team” then comes down to the Portland Thorns and Gotham FC. Gotham’s returning talent, depth and continuity, combined with their excellent additions, making them a safe bet to find steadier footing right away.

No. 1 OL Reign vs. No. 4 Gotham FC

No. 2 Washington Spirit vs. No. 3 Chicago Red Stars

… And Who Lifts the Cup??

OL Reign over Washington Spirit 

It feels crazy to pick against the defending champs and the sport’s top ascendant superstar. However, when healthy, the Reign simply have too much top-end talent all over the pitch. If you ask at another time, it’s entirely possible that I flip. But, for now, let’s roll with this.

The 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup begins Friday, March 18, and can be watched on CBS, CBS Sports Network, and Paramount+.

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