The NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off this Friday night when Racing Louisville takes on the Kansas City Current at Lynn Family Stadium on Friday at 7:30 PM (purchase tickets here).
Last season, Racing entered the league with a bang in their inaugural Challenge Cup match thanks to Brooke Hendrix’s equalizer in the waning seconds of overtime. Who knows what 2022 could have in store? Most teams – including Racing – have gone through major overhauls in the off-season in both coaches and players. The Challenge Cup itself has undergone some changes, too. With the addition of expansion teams San Diego Wave and Los Angeles Angel City, the tournament structure is quite different than last year. The end result of all these changes could mean the trophy is open to anyone!
Let’s take a closer look at the Challenge Cup, the teams Racing will be playing, and what expectations fans should have for Racing during this preseason tournament.
A New Challenge
The Challenge Cup was founded in 2020 simply as a way to give the NWSL teams the chance to play that year. The regular season was canceled due to the start of the COVID pandemic and the tournament which was held in a bubble environment in Utah was originally thought to be a one-off, month-long event.
In 2021, however, it was transformed into a preseason tournament played in home markets. Each of the league’s 10 teams were split evenly into eastern and western divisions and played their four opponents once. The 20 total matches across all teams were played from April 9 to May 3. The winner of each division moved onto the final on May 8.
In 2022, the tournament has been transformed once again. The group rounds are now almost two weeks longer than they were in 2021. This is to accommodate the significantly larger number of games that come with the addition of the two Californian expansion teams. Now, instead of two divisions with 4 teams each, there are three divisions – east (group 1), central (group 2), and west (group 3) – with four teams each. Each team will play their three division opponents twice now, also. As a result, there are now 36 total matches across all three divisions.
Semifinals have also been added in 2022. The top three teams will move into the semifinals along with the second-place team with the highest point total. On May 4, two matches will take place with the number one seed versus the number four and the number two versus the number three. The Cup final will take place on May 7.
Complicating matters is the fact that the regular season opener for 2022 will be held on May 1. This is glaringly three days before the Challenge Cup semifinals. As a result, the teams who make the finals in the tournament may need their opening matches rescheduled. Of course, none of this can be confirmed as the NWSL still hasn’t released their regular season schedule despite outcry from fans and players alike.
The Central Division
As mentioned above, Racing is part of the central division. This division is shared with the Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, and Kansas City Current. Each team will play each opponent at home and away for a total of six matches in the group stage. Racing opens the tournament with two home matches against Kansas City and Houston before going on the road against Chicago and Kansas City. Then they wrap up the tournament with one more home match against Chicago and a final away match against Houston.
It’s interesting to note that these opponents are almost completely different from who Racing played in the 2021 tournament. Last year, Racing was in the eastern division, so they played NY/NJ Gotham, the North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride, and Washington Spirit. With two new teams added in California for 2022, all three of Racing’s 2022 opponents got bumped from the previous western division while Racing is the only team from the former eastern division to get bumped centrally. As a result, for Racing more than any other team in the league, this will be a whole new Challenge Cup.
Will this hurt or help Racing? What about all the coaching and personnel changes that happened throughout the league?
Let’s take a quick look at all of Racing’s central division opponents to get a better sense of what the 2022 tournament may hold.
The Houston Dash
This year, Houston Dash is the only team that starts the Challenge Cup with the same coach as last year. And not just in the central division. Houston is the only team in the entire league that will start the Challenge Cup with the same coach as last year. This is possibly the biggest positive Houston has in 2022. The same coach means consistency in systems and style of play. Another positive for the Dash is that they are consistent Challenge Cup performers. They shocked everyone after winning the inaugural tournament in 2020. In 2021, they came in third in the Western division. They were also one of only three teams to remain undefeated (1-0-3 overall record).
On the downside, Houston is without some important players thanks to off-season moves. Most notably, star Kristie Mewis was picked by San Diego in the expansion draft and flipped to Gotham. Fellow USWNT star Abby Dahlkemper was also traded to San Diego. Both of these losses will be felt strongly on the front and back lines respectively. Along with Mewis, Houston also lost Gabby Seiler and Christine Nairn to retirement and Veronica Latsko, Jasmyne Spencer, and Megan Montefusco (née Oyster) to trades. While none of these other players individually have the impact of Mewis or Dahlkemper, losing them collectively is a tough blow to absorb. Especially because the Dash haven’t added any major game changers to their roster as replacements.
Even with coaching consistency, it’s hard to see how these losses won’t affect Houston. And although they had one of their better seasons in 2021, they still only came in seventh. It’ll be interesting to see what the Dash look like in 2022. They might not be worse, but it’s hard to see how they’ll be better.
Kansas City Current
Kansas City is a team that has shown they want to be contenders. Their ownership is investing heavily in the team, including creating the first NWSL-only training facilities and stadium in the entire league and acquiring big names to bolster their roster.
In the off-season, the Current acquired Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams from the North Carolina Courage. They join former Courage teammates Kristen Hamilton and Hailie Mace who were traded last season. Already the fact they have four major players who have a history of playing together on a winning team is a plus for the Current. The addition of goalkeeper Adrianna Franch last season also strengthened the squad significantly.
However, the additions of Hamilton, Mace, and Franch didn’t keep the Current from a 10th place finish last year. For all the name recognition, will Mewis and Williams be enough to turn the team around? Especially with Mewis still recovering from a long-term ankle injury and Williams coming off an inconsistent 2021 season. Throw in a new coach and the loss of team captain Rachel Corsie and the Current are left with a lot of question marks – especially in defense.
The Current seems to be aiming to buy their way into better standings through acquiring established talent instead of fostering young talent. They gave away their 2023 first round draft pick and the rights for promising talent Malia Berkely for Sam Mewis. They spent a record $175,000 on draft pick Kiki Pickett in 2021 only to send her to the Courage in exchange for Lynn Williams. If these young talents break out and the Current only improves in the short-term, these trades might seem short-sighted in retrospect.
Focusing on the current situation, however, it’s clear Kansas City will most likely be stronger than they were in 2021. They came in dead-last in the Challenge Cup last year and it’s hard to see them doing the same in 2022. Will the additions of Mewis and Williams be enough to take them to the top of the central division? Will their new coach, Matt Potter who was announced in January, make them a deadlier opponent? It’s hard to tell. But if their new stars have an immediate impact, it’s possible.
Chicago Red Stars
The Chicago Red Stars made it all the way to the championship in 2021 only to fall to the Washington Spirit. Almost immediately after the final, the Washington Post published explosive exposés on coach Rory Dames that ultimately saw him resign from the club. It took all the way until mid-February for a new coach to be found and many found the hiring of Chris Petrucelli from Southern Methodist University underwhelming. Additionally, fans remain upset about the front office’s decision to let Dames resign without penalty and to unsatisfactorily address the fact that serious complaints about his behavior had been known for years.
Additionally, Chicago lost a couple of key players in Julie Ertz and Sarah Gorden who were both traded to Los Angeles. They also sent keeper Cassie Miller to Kanas City. Although the Red Stars will have USWNT keeper Alyssa Naeher, losing Miller is still a blow. Miller played 18 matches last year after Naeher was injured, including earning 8 clean sheets and helping to carry Chicago to the finals. Injury-wise, star forward Kealia Watt will be out for most if not all of the season with an ACL tear and two key defenders Casey Krueger and Sarah Woldmoe are out due to pregnancy.
Still, Chicago has retained a good deal of their core players. They have Tierna Davidson, Morgan Gautrat, and Mal Pugh. They also traded to re-acquire Yuki Nagasato from Racing. As a result, they still have a strong, stable group to rely on. And this core of players has a history of winning. Chicago has made the finals in back-to-back seasons and made the playoffs in six consecutive seasons.
It’s hard to tell how much the coaching scandal has rocked the Red Stars. Players have remained largely silent on the matter. Will they pull together as the Spirit did in 2021 as they went through an ownership crisis? Or will fractures appear? Also, despite ending seasons on a strong note, the Red Stars have a recent habit of starting off weakly. They came in second-to-last in the Challenge Cup’s western division last year. So even if they have a typically strong season, they might not be hot out of the gate.
Even so, Chicago probably has one of the strongest chances of winning the central division on paper. It’s impossible to gauge how the scandals and coaching changes will affect them. The fact that they retain many of their core players may be the leg up they need to come out on top.
Racing’s offseason has been marked by major roster moves. All in all, they’ve turned over almost 50% of their roster. Still, like Chicago, they’ve maintained some key players like Emily Fox, Cece Kizer, Ebony Salmon, and Gemma Bonner. And like Kansas City, they’ve also acquired some big names like World Cup winner Jessica McDonald and draftee Jaelin Howell. Although Howell is just a rookie, her bona fides bring expectations about her up higher than the average first-year player. If she’s as immediately impactful as Emily Fox was for Racing in 2021, she’ll be a huge game-changer for the club. Racing has also signed a few other draftees with major potential. Namely, Kirsten Davis and Savannah DeMelo could have a big impact on Racing if they start off strong.
Still, Racing is betting a lot on young, unproven talent. In fact, they’re taking almost the exact opposite tactic of Kansas City. If the Current is giving away draft picks and young players for veteran talent, Racing is building for next year and the year after by focusing on developing young players. As a result, Racing will have an uphill battle this season, but it’s hopefully one that will pay off for years to come. They have a lot of new players learning to play together and a new coach who is implementing a new system of play. Adjusting to the speed of play and physicality in the NWSL is tough for college players, so there will be a big learning curve for Racing’s many rookies.
Still, most signs point to the club being better than last year. After weathering a coaching scandal of their own last season, players universally report that they are happy with the new coach and the chemistry the squad is building. Another key to Racing’s success is the fact that they will have more players playing in their preferred positions this season. Jaelin Howell can help bolster the central defense as a six which will free Freja Olofsson to play her more natural position as a box-to-box midfielder. McDonald will allow Kizer to move to her preferred wing position, also. Last season, Racing had so few midfielders, forwards like Savannah McCaskill and Kizer were forced to play out of position. With the additions of Howell and DeMelo, that should no longer be an issue.
After losing both inaugural year vice-captains to trades and waivers in the off-season, Racing faced something of a leadership vacuum. On Monday, it was announced Racing was taking the bold step of having four co-captains. Bonner, McDonald, and Nadia Nadim would bring veteran leadership to the field while second-year standout Emily Fox would represent the youth. With the player leadership question resolved, Racing can now move past the final hurdles that persisted after last season.
Will this be enough to push Racing to Challenge Cup victory? It’s almost impossible to tell. Taking a large group of young players on a one-year-old team and expecting them to obliterate their more seasoned opponents is unrealistic. Taking these same players and expecting them to show clear, measurable signs of improvement over last year, however, isn’t just reasonable, it should be expected.
All of which beggars the question: What does success look like for Racing in the 2022 Challenge Cup?
Sprint or Marathon?
To put things into perspective, Racing, by most accounts, did better than expected in the 2021 Challenge Cup. They ended the tournament in slightly higher standings than Kansas City or Chicago. (With regards to the Red Stars, standings based on goal differential). Most importantly, they were competitive and fun to watch. They surprised teams and NWSL fans with their fight. All of this is excellent for an expansion team.
Still, they didn’t win a single match. They lost two and drew two. Therefore, the bare minimum Racing should accomplish is to win a game. And with six chances this time instead of four, they should win more than that. Especially because this year’s competition is arguably lighter than last year’s. Out of Racing’s four Challenge Cup opponents in 2021, three went to the playoffs with the Spirit ultimately winning the championship. Of their three opponents in 2022, only the Red Stars made it to the playoffs.
So Racing should be expected to win games this Challenge Cup. Even if Kansas City became stronger, Racing has grown stronger, too. So they should match the Current’s growth to some extent. Chicago has yet to beat Racing. Despite ending up as runners-up in 2021, they lost to Racing at home and drew them in Louisville. If Chicago has mostly stayed the same, Racing should compete decently against them. And if Houston is possibly weaker, Racing should play well against them despite having a 1-2-0 record in 2021.
Should Racing be expected to win it all? The important thing is they could. This division is wide open compared to the east and the west, so they have a shot at taking it. Will they? Even with other teams getting shaken up, Racing has some of the highest turnover of anyone. Building chemistry on the field takes time. In scrimmages this preseason, Racing has shown moments of individual brilliance, but it just hasn’t fully come together at a team level yet.
Gemma Bonner echoed this sentiment in a media call on Monday, saying: “Look, we’re still such a young team we don’t expect to gel right away and we’re still going to be growing throughout the season, but I think we’re at a good place at the moment.”
Even so, Bonner and coach Kim Björkengren made it clear that once they did come together, they expect bigger things. Says Bonner: “The mentality now is we’re not the expansion team so we’ve got to have the expectation that we’re not here to be part of the league. We want to go and compete and we want to be in the top six at the end of the season.”
An expansion team earning a playoff spot in their second year has happened before. In 2017, the Orlando Pride came in third-place but fell to the Portland Thorns in the semifinals. So it is possible, even if it might take a bit more time for the team to reach it’s potential.
The good news is this is exactly what the Challenge Cup is for. The team can use this tournament to build chemistry and learn how they work together so they can come into the regular season in the best possible form. Ultimately, Racing is interested in running a marathon more than a sprint. While they’ll likely work to win it all, it’s also expected that they’ll be experimenting with formations and tactics. So, for Racing, success is showing growth and showing progress. It’s showing solid improvement over last year. And if they win it all, then that’s just the icing on the cake.
In Case You Missed It
Here’s some more Racing content you may have missed in the past couple of weeks:
- I join host Lis Schendel on The W League Show to interview Racing’s W League team’s head coach Kincaid Schmidt and assistant coach Libby Stout. You’ll want to hear everything Kincaid and Libby have to say about club culture within Racing and Lou City!
- I talked to all of Racing’s currently signed rookies! This mix of written and audio interviews was posted here on the Beautiful Game Network and on my podcast Butchertown Rundown.
- Being Her Best Self : An Interview with Racing Louisville Rookie Kirsten Davis
- A Family Feel: An Interview with Racing Louisville Rookie Hillary Beall
- All In the Name of the Win: An Interview with Racing Louisville Rookie Jordyn Bloomer
- Butchertown Rundown Extra Cut: Talking with Midfielder Savannah DeMelo
- Butchertown Rundown Extra Cut: Talking with Midfielder and USWNT Player Jaelin Howell
- Butchertown Rundown also had our own Challenge Cup episode a couple of weeks back!