NWSL Challenge Cup: An unnecessary challenge to start the season

Orlando Pride's Meggie Dougherty Howard reacts to an injury while laying on the field.
Orlando Pride's Meggie Dougherty Howard reacts to an injury during an NWSL Challenge Cup match against Racing Louisville FC at Lynn Family Stadium on April 10, 2021. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup is in its fourth week and the competition has already illustrated why no one should keep all their eggs in one basket. While the preseason tournament gets everyone in the right spirit, it poses an unnecessary challenge leading up to the start of the regular season.

In the summer of 2020, the Challenge Cup started out as a creative way to resume play during the height of the pandemic’s first year. The idea of having teams compete during a time of great uncertainty gave fans and athletes a boost of morale. It showed the sporting community that we can overcome the global health crisis by adapting to new health and safety measures. But now, the Challenge Cup itself faces its own set of issues.

A condensed preseason

This year, the Challenge Cup kicked off with an expanded group stage format. Matches began on March 18th, a whole three weeks earlier than when the 2021 edition started.

Because of the tournament’s earlier commencement, the 2022 NWSL preseason saw a shorter duration than in years past. Teams only had six weeks of conditioning before proper games began taking place. And, as we see now, that wasn’t enough time for athletes to prepare for the campaign ahead.

Now — only four games in — we are looking at multiple injuries that have riddled teams across the league. Some of these injuries aren’t season-ending, but the principle holds true.

Could many of these early injuries have been avoided if the Challenge Cup took place later in the year?

Challenge Cup injuries galore

Lynn Williams, Tierra Davidson, Marta, Erin McLeod, Samantha Mewis, Emily Sonnet, and Sarah Gorden are just a handful of players who’ve seen their names appear across NWSL injury reports in recent weeks. 

The common injury that has struck these athletes pertains to the knee. Anyone who has an injury, especially a knee injury, hates to hear the letters ACL. Unfortunately, many studies have reported this as a very common injury among women athletes.

Over the last few years, ACL injuries have hit the women’s game at alarming levels.

According to Barca Innovation Hub, it is critical for athletes to have as much time as possible in preseason to help lower their risk of injury. Teams that do more training sessions in their preseason may reduce the risk of injury.

“Professional teams should design the preseason to have as many training sessions as possible while incorporating training,” it states. “Reducing work time or doing it in conditions that aren’t suitable can increase the risk of injury during the following months leading up to the regular season play.”

Solving the injury crisis

In previous years, the NWSL has had at least two full months to prepare before regular season play began. The key to this was preventing injuries that could end up becoming season-ending.

The turnaround time that is needed for an athlete to recover after a match is 72 to 90 hours, according to Gatorade Sports Science Institute. This recovery time is of the utmost importance for athletes to avoid getting chronically fatigued and for their bodies to restore their natural homeostasis.

Fixture congestion is becoming more common in football leagues across the world, and it’s no different with the current Challenge Cup schedule.

Currently, NWSL players don’t have even a day to prepare for their upcoming opponent — this is factoring in the 72 hour recovery time.

The recent international break fortunately gave athletes much needed rest and recovery — unless they received a call up, that is. But the final weeks of the Challenge Cup restore the crowded fixtures.

In a way, reaching the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup probably causes more harm than good. It adds more work to the start of the NWSL regular season for any team that wins their group stage division.

Strength and conditioning leading up to the regular season needs to be taken seriously. This calls for intrasquad scrimmages, in-state college team scrimmages, and occasional NWSL club friendlies. It’s a structure that decreases the risks of athletes getting riddled with injuries right off the bat.

Rethinking the Challenge Cup

Despite the challenge this competition creates, the platform itself needs restructuring.

Looking at another popular stateside league, the WNBA has the Commissioner’s Cup that is designed to have a tournament-style format built into its first half of regular season play. The NWSL could take a note from the WNBA, as Challenge Cup results don’t count towards NWSL regular season standings. 

In the WNBA, the first ten regular season games contribute to each team’s ranking in the Commissioner’s Cup and determine the seeding. This doesn’t compromise any preseason conditioning or injury prevention, but it instead levitates the importance of every game outcome.

This kind of format could help the NWSL — especially if league organizers wish to keep the Challenge Cup alive and kicking.

The “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality doesn’t apply to the Challenge Cup. It’s a broken competition, but there are ways to fix it without accumulating injuries and fatigue. 

After all, the Challenge Cup has brought the league a new experience during the pandemic. It allowed for what seemed impossible to happen in the world’s most trying time.

As the years pass, the Cup needs to use real competitive play in a way that makes sense. Following the Commissioner’s Cup format would help the NWSL prevent cutting into its own preseason. Even scheduling tournament games throughout the regular season like the FA’s Conti Cup could work.

If the Challenge Cup has a long-lasting future within the NWSL, it needs a proper reevaluation. Players’ safety should be front and center because it’s their spirits that elevate this league.

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