The 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off midweek with every team playing their first round of matches in the tournament that is, now, and finally, concurrent with the season. Tournament sponsor UKG, which I will always and forever read as UGK, recently announced a doubling of the prize money, to $1-million.
Incentivizing the Challenge Cup is important to give it some gravitas, as it’s an unfamiliar concept in American sports. However, cup competitions are common across global football. In the WSL, in addition to league competition teams also play in a League Cup as well as the FA Cup. The problem for the NWSL in getting their cup off the ground has been the timing of the tournament.
Last year it was a preseason tournament that overlapped with the start of the regular season for teams that advanced beyond the group stages, which overloaded players at a very early stage of the season. This year it’s more sensibly placed. The tournament begins this week with the first of six total matchdays between now and August, with the semifinal and final wrapping up the first full week of September.
Given that this is a three match week right after an international break, the Spirit’s entry into the tournament might involve a few players who have yet to see substantial minutes, with a potential debut or two possible. Watch the Spirit as they head to New Jersey to face Gotham for their first round Challenge Cup match – maybe, hopefully, let us pray – on Paramount+.
When & Where
When: 7:30pm ET, Wednesday, April 19
Where: Red Bull Arena
Referee: Shawn Tehini
If Mark Parsons does what I expect, the key players will be a host of recently drafted and eager young players. Nicole Douglas played a half in Louisville when Ashley Sanchez was struggling with a stomach bug and could get a start. With Trinity Rodman unavailable due to an excused absence, Lena Silano or Civana Kuhlmann could get the call as a replacement. If Parsons wants to keep Ashley Hatch rested after an international break and physical match versus North Carolina over the weekend, Silano and Kuhlmann could both get into the XI.
While I don’t think he’ll start 15-year-old Chloe Ricketts, Paige Metayer could be back in the lineup after missing the match versus North Carolina due to her unfortunate double yellow card sending off against Louisville. While not a newbie, midfielder Jordan Baggett has only had a cameo appearance so far this season and should get a chunk of minutes versus Gotham. It would also be interesting to see Maddie Elwell line up at left back as she works to settle into the position.
Gotham and head coach Juan Carlos Amorós sent Paige Monaghan to Racing Louisville in exchange for the #4 overall pick to select the best college midfielder in the draft, Jenna Nighswonger. It was an exciting move that brought a unique young talent into the fold, but since they’ve decided to play her at left back. While modern left backs often get high up the pitch and find pockets, it seems a misuse to stifle a player who’s as gifted in central areas as Nighswonger.
Amorós has stated that there’s hefty competition for spots, which might signal they still see her as a midfielder, so this may be her quickest route to playing time. If so, the Challenge Cup might be the perfect vehicle for them to see her in their midfield structure.
With this being the first match of a heavily incentivized four-to-five month long tournament, the biggest challenge will be a variance in approaches to these games. Gotham FC invested heavily in their squad and brought in a number of established players who could use game time away from league play to get on the same page, even if only for a half. The Spirit, meanwhile, drafted a lot of rookies and have a number of players who have yet to see significant time on the pitch.
It’s always hard to predict starting lineups, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gotham’s XI is closer to their starting unit than the Spirit. If so, it will be a major test for the young Spirit players who get the nod.
Out – Imani Dorsey (excused absence), Taryn Torres (SEI-knee)
Questionable – None
Out – Bayley Feist (lower leg), Anna Heilferty (SEI – knee), Tori Huster (SEI – lower leg), Trinity Rodman (excused absence), Riley Tanner (lower leg)
Questionable – None