The fourth annual NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off on April 19. Here is everything you need to know ahead of the first match at Exploria Stadium.
The number of games for NWSL teams is about to be taken up a notch. Following three weeks of regular-season action, the clubs must shift their attention to the mid-week in the new-look UKG NWSL Challenge Cup. Unlike the previous three editions of this competition, the tournament will no longer be played in the preseason.
Other than the timing for the NWSL schedule, the structure of the competition will remain the same. From April to August, all 12 teams will compete in three different groups based on their respective geographic locations across the United States. Each club will compete in a home and away fixture against each team in their group with each group winner and the second-place team with the best record earning spots in the Challenge Cup semifinals. The four remaining teams will compete in a single-elimination tournament beginning on Sep. 6 with the final scheduled for Sep. 9 hosted by the highest seed left.
The revamped Challenge Cup will make its long-awaited introduction next Wednesday, April 19. With the addition of the Florida and Massachusetts-based human resource company Ultimate Kronos Group (UKG) as a sponsor, this season’s event will have much more at stake compared to the three prior iterations. It is just another step forward for a league that has written a new chapter in a league that has goals of creating a more equitable and safe environment for everyone, especially the players.
UKG and NWSL announced a record-breaking $1 million in prize money, comparable to the MLS Cup
Gone is the cramped pre-season NWSL schedule. The league finally listened to the complaints from the players, spreading out the competition, and not wearing the teams down before the regular season even begins. In 2022, the Challenge Cup went from March 18 to May 7. Teams like Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage experienced sluggish starts to the season mostly due to the fact that both of them advanced to the final of the tournament. Rhian Wilkinson’s Portland Thorns just missed out on the semifinals, arguably allowing them to come out of the gate strong against the Current in matchup week one.
Each season, this competition has produced some of the most thrilling matches of the league year. OL Reign and Washington Spirit needed 17 penalties to decide who would advance to play North Carolina in the 2022 final. The year prior, a Carli Lloyd equalizer in the second half of the final sent NJ/NY Gotham FC and Portland into spot kicks. Leading up to the semifinals in 2020, three out of the four quarterfinals were decided by just one penalty. A Jane Campbell save of a Veronica Boquete spot kick began the Dash’s run to the silverware.
Current Kansas City Current midfielder and Brazilian international Debinha has dominated the competition in the past. The 31-year-old has won the tournament MVP in the past two campaigns, netting eight goals en route to leading her team to the 2022 cup at the beginning of May ahead of the regular season.
Debinha will team up with the other player who finished the last year’s cup with five goals, Kristen Hamilton as the two seek to reinvigorate an out-of-form Kansas City side. Ashley Hatch led last season’s version in goals with six, ahead of Hamilton and Debinha. With the World Cup approaching, Hatch must have her eyes on replicating that kind of performance as her place with the USWNT is still up in the air.
No team has won the cup more than twice. Houston Dash, Portland Thorns, and the Courage are the only three clubs who have tasted victory in the NWSL’s version of the English Continental Cup. For teams seeking to shift their momentum, this is a chance to wipe the slate clean. Similar to other cup competitions around the world, the league season has little significance. Anything can happen, and with the new prize combined with the change in time frame, this has a chance to be the most captivating addition yet.
Challenge Cup week 1 NWSL schedule (Wednesday, April 19, 2023):
Group A (East):
North Carolina Courage at Orlando Pride, 7:00 pm EST
Washington Spirit at NJ/NY Gotham FC, 7:30 pm EST
Group B (West):
OL Reign at Angel City FC, 10:00 pm EST
Portland Thorns at San Diego Wave, 10:00 pm EST
Group C (Central):
Kansas City Current at Houston Dash, 7:30 pm EST
Note: Racing Louisville and Chicago Red Stars will play their week one fixture on Wednesday, May 31 at 8:00 pm EST at SeatGeek Stadium in Chicago.
Stream all matches live on Paramount+