Challenge Cup changes raise concerns for NWSL players and coaches

Credit: Nicoel Noel/ EVT Sports

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

This year’s NWSL Challenge Cup format looks a lot different than it did last season.

Last season the entire tournament took place before the regular season, but now, matches are sprinkled in throughout the season.

With the FIFA Women’s World Cup taking place from Jul 20 – Aug 20, 2023, in Australia and New Zealand, there were bound to be conflicts in the scheduling of this NWSL season. The NWSL regular season will pause play during that time period, lengthening the season. But for the players who aren’t called up for their country — the Challenge Cup will continue play and keep them busy.

For all NWSL teams, the opening three of six Challenge Cup matchdays will take place from April 19 – June 28. The final three matchdays will be played concurrently with the World Cup, from July 21 – August 6.

Some league voices haven’t been too fond of the changes, including San Diego Wave head coach Casey Stoney who now has to deal with three games in eight days following an international break. A weekend loss at OL Reign, then a midweek win against the Portland Thorns before heading up to Los Angeles to face Angel City on Sunday.

“It’s just where (the cup) is placed in the calendar for me, is it necessary to go in this week off the back of an international window? No,” Stoney said. “We talk about parity in this league all the time, and it being fair, not everyone has played this week, so Portland now have to go and play a team at the weekend who haven’t played a midweek fixture and haven’t traveled, how is that parity?

Challenge Cup

With UKG, a human resources and payroll services company’s takeover as the Cup’s sponsor in 2022, it announced that the 2022 Challenge Cup prize money would increase 10x and then double in 2023. Recently, this year’s prize money was announced to hit $1 million, making it the largest prize pool in U.S. women’s league soccer history.

Not everyone is pleased by the announcement. The money is fine, obviously. The increase in pay is a massive step in “advancing the league’s extensive efforts to raise awareness and rectify the unfair reality that women on and off the field are being short-changed,” as said by NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman in a news release. Yet other underlying issues have raised concerns.

The new prize money now takes the Challenge Cup neck-to-neck with Major League Soccer’s 2020 MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando which had a total prize pool of $1.1 million, and the MLS Cup with a similar reward. Yet the fact that the Challenge Cup rewards could outweigh the rewards for winning the NWSL Championship may diminish the achievement of winning the Championship or NWSL Shield (awarded to the team with the best regular-season record).

Washington Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan said it’s great that there’s such a huge prize pool for the Challenge Cup, but it’s “frustrating” that the winner may take home more than the actual NWSL champion

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With the new CBA rules agreed upon last year, the winners of the NWSL Championship and the NWSL Shield receive bonuses of at least $5,000. Yet with UKG’s new Challenge Cup sponsorship, winners of the cup may earn much more as just last season, the cup awarded the winning North Carolina Courage players with $10,000 each.

Not only is the increased prize money a concern in terms of commitment to certain games, but the timing in which the money was announced may lead to more issues.

“I think the timing of the announcement was poor,” Wave coach Stoney said. “So you give out the schedule, then you give out the prize money. I think they’ve done that to pressurize coaches to play certain teams, if I’m being honest. I think the players deserve the prize money, absolutely, but if you want the cup to be something everybody strives to win, don’t stick it in the middle of the week after an international window and expect coaches to be able to play everybody every game.”

The recent Challenge Cup games have seen star players such as Thorns forward Sophia Smith and Wave Forward Alex Morgan play no longer than 45 minutes — emphasizing Stoney’s point on the difficulty of featuring players consistently. We’re yet to see the full implications of this year’s Challenge Cup changes, but we can only hope that we continue to take in entertaining soccer while furthering the fight for pay equity.

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