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What went wrong with the NWSL’s Challenge Cup & how to fix it

Here’s three shortcomings, and why next year should be different.

By André Carlisle – @not_carlisle

What went wrong with the NWSL’s Challenge Cup & how to fix it

The NWSL took a giant leap toward building a more sustainable framework with the historic signing of their first CBA. However, some recurring operational failures still exist. Unfortunately, a few combined to marr the second half of the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup Final, which was aired on CBS.

Here are three of the primary issues:

 

1. Scheduling

New NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman isn’t at fault for the scheduling of this year’s Challenge Cup, but setting better processes needs to be high on her priority list. The NWSL’s culture of rushing to jam games in to fit network TV windows without consideration for player travel, safety, or ultimately performance, is pervasive.

Last season, players and fans had to be loud online about moving last year’s NWSL Championship game, which the league originally scheduled as a 9 am kickoff local time in Portland (to secure the noon ET time slot on CBS). 

 

The same issue reared its head at the end of the Challenge Cup. OL Reign wasn’t able to host their semifinal due to a scheduling conflict and instead played a “home game” 3,000 miles away in Washington, DC. Beyond that, the Spirit were forced to play three games in seven days, with the last being an early 1 pm kickoff in a cup final.

 

2. Sponsorship mismanagement

I need to preface this part upfront with a blanket statement: money going directly into the hands of NWSL players is good. Carson Pickett, North Carolina Courage fullback, noted that the $10,000 bonus for winning this season’s Challenge Cup would be life-changing for some players on lower-end to minimum salaries. This is true.

The problem comes when the league doesn’t consider the soccer impact of some decisions. For instance, the Challenge Cup was announced and set up as a preseason tournament, meaning players and coaches were put in the awkward position of having to approach a preseason tournament with an outsized level of intensity.

Preseason tournaments are typically a time for coaches to tweak their systems and focus on teaching rather than results, while players on the fringes are given opportunities to impress, or at the very least grow. That had to take a backseat. Instead what was created resembled a soccer variant of a Hunger Games style tournament. Not only that, it was scheduled before players were fully fit and prepared for the levels of intensity and travel.

As a result, many star players racked up a ton of minutes before their regular seasons even truly got underway including the Courage’s Abby Erceg and Denise O’Sullivan, who each played 720 of 720 available minutes.  With next year’s Challenge Cup paying out substantially more money, it better not be a preseason tournament.

 

3. NWSL referees + labor fights

Conversations of player health and safety naturally lead us to referees. There’s no sugarcoating it, many aren’t good enough – yet. Far too many weekend referee decisions (and nondecisions) take center stage in the discourse of the week. The best case is a missed handball (still not great, particularly in a knockout tournament with money on the line), but the worst are no-calls on dangerous fouls. 

It’s gotten to the point where players are taking to Twitter to call out bad decisions and, in some cases, particular referees. (The latter is worth several yikes.)

The problem, however, isn’t that referees assigned to NWSL matches don’t want to improve, it’s that the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) doesn’t provide much feedback or training to the tier of officials they pull from for NWSL assignments. As of last December, officials in those secondary tiers were locked in a fight with PRO regarding their attempt to unionize. The desire to unionize came from not receiving the support or development they wanted, and gaining union certification would bring PRO to the table to start work on a collective bargaining agreement.

Another issue is that despite the NWSL existing as the top division of women’s soccer in the U.S., PRO’s referee assignments don’t reflect that. Tier 1 officials are only assigned Major League Soccer (MLS) matches, while United Soccer League (men’s division II) and NWSL are seen as equals by the organization. 

It’s up to PRO to raise standards for themselves and their referees, but they can start treating the NWSL as the top-tier professional league it is, like, yesterday.

 

What can be done?

Unfortunately, many of these are issues, or symptoms of issues, a lot of people who cover and love the NWSL have been frustrated about for years. While progress has been made with the new CBA, a framework (and, let’s be honest, a front office culture) of prioritizing player safety and the on-pitch product doesn’t exist.

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