San Diego Wave: The one big positive and the many negatives of the NWSL Challenge Cup

Challenge Cup

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Casey Stoney San Diego Wave
Credit: Francisco Velasco/EVT Sports

The San Diego Wave began its 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup campaign this past Wednesday, April 20, against the Portland Thorns at Snapdragon Stadium.

The Challenge Cup has been a controversial tournament in NWSL for years, and the new format in 2023 has added even more controversy to the competition.

In 2023, the Challenge Cup is being played mid-week during the NWSL regular season for the first time in history. Ironically mid-week NWSL regular season games were removed this year to try and improve player safety and try to evade a congested schedule. Now, that congested schedule in the NWSL will continue in 2023, thanks to the Challenge Cup format.

There is one big positive takeaway from the Challenge Cup, and that is that it gives younger players and role players an opportunity to prove themselves on the pitch and fight for more regular minutes. The Wave saw that firsthand with Sierra Enge, who made her professional debut against the Portland Thorns on Wednesday after being drafted out of Stanford earlier in the year.

Enge played the 90 minutes for the Wave and had an impressive showing playing as both a center-back and midfielder in the match. Other players who are not regular starters, like Isabella Briede, Sofia Jakobsson, Rachel Hill, and Madison Pogarch, also received the start against Portland.

This is the biggest positive from the Challenge Cup, but for some teams with much less depth than the Wave, this is not the case. Regardless of depth, it is still extremely tiresome to play three games in the span of seven days for any team in the league. It is also a lot of pressure for any head coach in the league and can be frustrating as it is for Wave coach Casey Stoney.

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Stoney said, “I don’t agree with a three-game week after an international window at all. I think it’s really poor for the players. It doesn’t give teams time to prep. If you want the cup to be something that everyone strives to win, don’t stick it in the middle of the week after an international window and expect coaches to play everybody every game.”

The prize money for winning the Challenge Cup was doubled for the 2023 season to $1 million, but the format makes it extremely difficult for all teams in the league to field their best players. Casey Stoney expressed that she was content with the prize money, but did also express that the “timing” of announcing the new prize was “poor” by the league, given that it was announced after the schedule was released.

There is one big positive in the Challenge Cup that benefits players like Sierra Enge. Still, the negatives may lead to the competition eventually disappearing due to the massive problem it presents teams, especially those with several international players like the San Diego Wave.

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