NWSL kicks off second ever Challenge Cup

The Challenge Cup is separate from the regular season, which will begin May 15

Julia Junker, Contributing Writer

On April 9, the National Women’s Soccer League kicked off its second rendition of the Challenge Cup. This is separate from the 24-match regular season, which will begin May 15.

The Challenge Cup was originally established last year amidst the pandemic in place of a regular season. The players took part in the first “bubble” in sports (yes, even before the NBA) when they stayed at a singular location in Utah for the duration of the tournament.

The 2020 version featured a World Cup-style of play with group stages, quarterfinals and semifinals leading up to the championship. This structure was meant to accommodate the odd number of teams (nine), though that didn’t end up mattering much after the Orlando Pride had to drop out due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

This year’s iteration of the Cup brings some major differences. Primarily, there is no bubble this year, and stadiums are permitting spectators at a limited capacity.

In terms of format, with the addition of the Racing Louisville FC expansion team, the 2021 Challenge Cup is able to split the 10 teams equally into West and East divisions. After playing all of the other teams in their respective divisions, the top two squads will play in the championship match, which is set to take place on May 8.

Aside from the fact that these clubs haven’t played a real game since last October, there was one particular issue that plagued the NWSL during the opening weekend: many players were absent due to international team engagements. This meant your usual headliners like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan were not available. Instead, both were in Sweden for a friendly match on Saturday with the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT). Although there are plenty of talented players throughout the league that shouldn’t be discounted, the absence of these national team stars was surely noticeable.

Such was true in the first match on Friday between the reigning Challenge Cup champions Houston Dash, and the Chicago Red Stars. Televised on the CBS Sports Network, this was a rematch of last year’s championship in which Houston beat Chicago 2-0. That game featured a late goal from Championship Game MVP Shea Groom last Friday that sealed the deal.

The Dash were undoubtedly looking toward Groom to produce some of that same magic, especially with three of their star players out due to international obligations. The Red Stars, who were also missing three players, turned to striker Kealia Watt to come up big against her former team (Watt was traded to Chicago in 2020). However, as most first games of the season go, the play was sloppy and disorganized from both teams, resulting in a 0-0 draw.

The second game was about as different as it could get from the first. The Portland Thorns faced the newly relocated Kansas City FC (formerly the Utah Royals) at their home stadium in a late evening match. The Thorns ended up winning 2-1 with goals by Rocky Rodriguez and Tyler Lussi, but that was not where the buzz came from.

These two clubs have a history of physicality between them, and Friday night was no different. Between dirty fouls and physical fights, four red cards were handed out within five minutes: one toward Kansas City, two toward Thorns players, and one to Portland head coach Mark Parsons. This series of events led to the widespread use of #NWSLAfterDark across Twitter, with fans, journalists and even official organizations joining in on the fun.

Saturday afternoon saw a matchup between powerhouse North Carolina Courage and the Washington Spirit. In the 10 total games between the two, the Courage have come out on top nine times. At their home stadium in Cary, N.C. they were able to pull out a win once more, outscoring the Spirit 3-2 in a hard-fought victory with goals from Kristen Hamilton, Jessica McDonald and Merritt Mathias. This game was not all bad for the Spirit, though, as their number two draft pick, Trinity Rodman, became the youngest player to score in the NWSL at the age of 18.

The last game of the weekend took place at Louisville’s home stadium. For their inaugural match on Saturday evening, Louisville took on the Orlando Pride, who had to sit out of last year’s Cup. With 5,300 in attendance, CeCe Kizer scored the first goal in franchise history in the 12th minute, assisted by No. 1 draft pick Emily Fox.

This match, too, ended in a draw, though two goals from each side made for an interesting event. Each of the four scores were the first career NWSL goals for each respective player (Kizer and Brooke Hendrix for Louisville, Taylor Kornieck and Abi Kim for Orlando).

Considering a number of players were away on international duty, the opening weekend of the NWSL Challenge Cup was as exciting as one could hope. With 16 more matches to go before the championship, this tournament promises to be riveting until the very end.