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Why every Challenge Cup semifinalist is struggling

Remember the teams that looked awesome last month? Neither do we.

By André Carlisle – @not_carlisle

Why every Challenge Cup semifinalist is struggling

Challenge Cup winner North Carolina Courage, plus runners-up Washington Spirit and the two other semifinalists, OL Reign and Kansas City Current, all currently reside at the bottom half of the table. In fact, the group’s combined record is 3w-6d-9l with eleven goals scored and twenty-one conceded(!).

These teams were expected to be the cream of the crop that rises to the top (yeah). Here’s why they aren’t, yet:

 

Overload/Scheduling

The upcoming international break was a marker for the NWSL to squeeze in regular season matches before stars were pulled away to national team duty. Unfortunately, they also scheduled a preseason tournament that would extend into the regular season for the four teams that did the best throughout. The combination made an already jam-packed schedule even more jam-packed-ier.

By the time you read this, every semifinalist will have played two midweek games in a three-week span, and each will have endured at least one cross country trip. The tightness of the teams’ schedules aren’t only physically challenging, but it erases training opportunities. Players recovering from injuries can’t properly integrate, and the only time a coach has to work through tactical solutions on a pitch are the 90 minutes during a competitive match.

 

Injuries

Compounding the problem has been the player availability due to injury. In the Challenge Cup Final, North Carolina lost Kerolin to an ankle injury and the Spirit lost Jordan Baggett to a concussion. Spirit midfielder Dorian Bailey was lost in the second regular season match due to a cheekbone injury.

Kansas City and North Carolina Courage have also dealt with internal outbreaks of COVID-19 (remember the pandemic?). As such, Kansas City have played multiple regular season matches with just six available substitutes. Additionally for KC, rookie forward Elyse Bennett, who has become vital to the Current’s ability to score, has been in and out of the lineup after racking up minutes in quick succession during the Challenge Cup.

North Carolina has been without Kiki Pickett due to knee surgery, rookie standout Emily Gray and midfielder Havana Solaun. Courage forward Taylor Smith, who was exceptional in the Challenge Cup, has also been in and out of the lineup, registering 511 minutes played in the preseason tournament and just 120 in the regular season. 

 

Preseason? Or Tournament?

It’s no coincidence that teams who didn’t make the semifinals of the tournament, particularly those who were out of the running early on (Angel City FC and San Diego Wave), are having far better starts to the regular season.

These teams were able to put emphasis on the preseason part of ‘preseason tournament’, whereas the finalists had to stay focused on the tournament aspect. Teams that didn’t make it were able to use live opposition to tweak their systems, give new players vital experience, facilitate cohesion, and ultimately change things that weren’t working.

Teams with a chance to lift the trophy and earn $10,000 apiece had to put themselves in the best position to do so. This mindset was most evident in Kansas City Current’s first regular season match, in which they fielded a de facto second team away at Portland and lost 3-0.

The second half of the season should allow these teams to rediscover their form, but in a league this deep (just four points separated 4th and 7th in 2021), it might be easier to take a selfie with Sasquatch than to make up dropped points.

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