The success of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was the first major sports league in the United States to return to play since COVID-19 brought the sports world to a halt. The Challenge Cup tournament was completed on July 26 in Sandy, Utah with the Houston Dash as champions.

Portland Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan and Washington Spirit midfielder Rose Lavelle face-off during a Challenge Cup game. [Source:]

How it happened?

The NWSL announced its plan to return to play on May 27. The Challenge Cup tournament would be held in Utah, utilizing facilities from other professional soccer teams in the area, and all nine teams would each play four games to determine seeding for the knockout stage.

Players and representatives from the NWSL would live in a “bubble,” similar to the ones recently created by the NBA and MLS in Florida, creating a somewhat quarantined environment with rigorous COVID-19 testing.

Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis of the North Carolina Courage celebrate after a goal. [Source: North Carolina Courage]

However, before the tournament could get started, six players from the NWSL’s Orlando Pride tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, the team had to drop from the Challenge Cup and stayed back in Florida to quarantine.

Challenge Cup games

The Challenge Cup officially kicked off on June 27 with a matchup between the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage, the reigning NWSL champions. The game ended in a 2-1 win for the Courage, with goals by Debinha and Lynn Williams.

A second game was also played on the opening day. The Washington Spirit beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-1, with goals by Rose Lavelle and Ashley Hatch.

Players from the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage kneel during the National Anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. [Source:]

Players from the NWSL also used Challenge Cup games to address social justice issues. Before the Portland and North Carolina match, all players on both teams took a knee during the National Anthem. Players also wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups and armbands during games.

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the National Anthem in 2016 sparked controversy, and the action has recently increased in popularity after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. According to the New York Times, “The players said the action – which gave each player the choice to take part or not – was a protest against “racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America.””

That might rub some fans the wrong way, but I honestly think that if you see it as being a flag issue and not a human issue at this point, I just don’t really care.

Lynn Williams, forward for the NC Courage, on her decision to kneel [Source: New York Times]

Games continued for about another month, and the semifinals were held on July 22. A lone goal from Rachel Daly led the Houston Dash to a win over the Portland Thorns. The Chicago Red Stars battled a 3-2 win over Sky Blue FC with the game winning goal from Savannah McCaskill.

The Houston Dash were crowned the champions of the Challenge Cup after defeating the Chicago Red Stars. [Source:]

The Challenge Cup finals were held on July 26. Goals from Sophie Schmidt and Shea Groom led the Houston Dash to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars. The tournament ended with Houston the unlikely and first ever Challenge Cup Champions.

The takeaways

From the success of the NWSL Challenge Cup, we learned that it is possible to stage a tournament safely during a pandemic. Prior to this tournament, no one really knew how sports could safely resume, including whether the “bubble” would be successful, how the safety protocols would work, or even if it would be possible to completely finish the tournament. Thankfully, the Challenge Cup concluded with zero positive COVID-19 tests.

Players from the Chicago Red Stars celebrate after defeating OL Reign in penalty kicks to advance to the Challenge Cup finals. [Source:]

We also learned that if you air sports, someone will always watch it. This tournament was the NWSL’s national tv debut with games being aired on CBS for the first time ever. The Challenge Cup opener attracted 572,000 viewers on CBS, and 653,000 people tuned in to the final. These numbers were also attracted with almost zero coverage by major media outlets and limited advertising.

Overall, the tournament provided much needed momentum to propel the league through the rest of 2020 and to assure that it is possible for other sports to resume safely.

The NWSL also announced today that the 2020 season will resume on September 5 with the NWSL Fall Series. Games will be played until October 17 in regional three-team groups in an effort to minimize travel. Check in next week on to see the full schedule.

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