Is the NWSL Challenge Cup a “real” competition or a preseason tune-up competition?
It depends on who you ask. The 2022 Challenge Cup will be the third in the NWSL’s history — the first in 2020 turned out to be the main event of the year, as the competition was a pivot and the first bubble experiment in North American sports during the COVID pandemic. Last year, with a proper regular season coming afterwards, some teams treated the Challenge Cup like an extended audition for the so-called “games that count” and others were eager to win a trophy, no matter what it was.
I’ll admit as someone who wants the Challenge Cup to be treated as a proper competition, my eyebrows shot up when Angel City FC called it a “preseason” competition in a release — technically true, but does that mean the team will coast their way through their first games?
Head coach Freya Coombe has been asked about her approach in the Challenge Cup while talking to the press the past couple weeks, and she said she’s trying to balance the needs of gearing up for the marathon of the regular season with starting the club history on the right foot in a short tournament.
“We’re going to use the Challenge Cup as a way of getting our players an opportunity to play,” Coombe told reporters last week. “If they are a contracted player, they will play in the Challenge Cup. We will use that time to have a look and evaluate players and their performances. But we also want to be competitive, so we will look to build.”
Coombe re-emphasized that plan this week in her press conference.
“We plan on using the Challenge Cup as a way of getting our squad and our house in order to go in and hit the ground running with the league. We are excited to be there at the Banc for that first [regular season] game,” she said.
Angel City FC will play their Challenge Cup games at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Stadium. Banc of California Stadium it is not, but for a pre-soccer specific stadium era venue, it has its old school charms. But the different venue may add to the feeling that the Challenge Cup isn’t fully competitive.
To that, Coombe admits the players have an enduring will to win and she doesn’t think they will be taking the Challenge Cup games at a lower intensity.
“I don’t think any player that’s playing at this level goes in to not win a game,” she said. “We’re happy that we’ve got hungry and competitive players to go out and compete. For us, we want to be able to give everyone an opportunity to play so that we can go into the season knowing how our players are going to perform in competitive games, giving them that opportunity, and then being able to go in with a more formalized depth chart into the season.”
Coombe also admits the market pressures, with the Los Angeles Rams the latest local team to win a league title, this city won’t be content with a team that is not winning, even an expansion team.
“We’re in a very competitive market, so we want to have a team that is competitive, challenge for championships, go off to playoffs, and keep this culture of winning within the city of Los Angeles,” she said.
So to sum up, for Coombe her approach will be to use the Challenge Cup to play everyone and see what happens, but she also understands the need to get results, too.
“We have our 14,000 season ticket holders that we have to entertain on a weekly basis, not to mention the other single ticket holders that are going to be coming to games. So, we need to make sure that we’re entertaining the fans and supporters with an attractive product,” she noted.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.