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Coaches around NWSL pump brakes on Challenge Cup aspirations

It certainly makes sense for San Diego Wave FC ahead of first game.

Courtesy of San Diego Wave FC

With San Diego Wave FC on the verge of playing their first-ever competitive game, on Saturday when they take on fellow NWSL expansion side Angel City FC in Fullerton, a big question emerges: Just how competitive are the upcoming games in the NWSL Challenge Cup?

To provide some context, the Challenge Cup will be in its third year in 2022, after being the restart competition in a bubble format in 2020 at the most restrictive part of the pandemic, before taking place in the spring of 2021, like it’s doing again this year. In the second season, it appears the Challenge Cup is becoming a way for teams to “soft open” into the season, with the regular season, to come after the Challenge Cup, given far more priority by coaches.

Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney said she’s treating it as a proving ground for a brand-new squad.

“Number one, I’m not naïve, we’re an expansion team,” Stoney told reporters earlier in the preseason. “We’re coming in new, we’re building relationships. So the Challenge Cup for us is about developing our team and getting to know those relationships on the pitch in a competitive environment. Also getting to know our opposition because a lot of the opposition now have new head coaches, how are they going to play, what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses, how can we exploit? So it’s a bit of a discovery cup for us, if I’m honest.”

That all makes sense, but. what about Stoney’s counterpart at Angel City, Freya Coombe? A remarkably similar sentiment from the Los Angeles team’s manager.

“We’re going to use the Challenge Cup as a way of getting our players an opportunity to play,” Coombe told reporters earlier in preseason. “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.”

Well sure, these are expansion teams, they don’t want to overstate their aims for the first competition, it makes sense they would slow-play their objectives. But what about the returning teams? There’s got to be some among the 10 coming back that are angling for glory in the Challenge Cup?

Probably, but with the league undergoing radical transformation in the last 12 months, with not only more player turnover than normal years and two expansion teams, 11 of 12 teams have hired their current head coach in that span. The coaching turnover is truly massive and as a result, even teams that would seem like good candidates to target the Challenge Cup for silverware (like the Washington Spirit or OL Reign, two of the most successful teams in 2021 that remained pretty stable in the offseason) have said in recent weeks something to the effect of “the Challenge Cup is basically preseason.”

One perennial power that’s undergone major changes in the past year is the North Carolina Courage, with head coach Sean Nahas — in his first preseason in charge of the team — admitting this is a transition period for his side and they need to downplay lofty aspirations for the moment.

“It’s a stepping stone for us. You know, we have so many new players and also to be honest with you we had a game against Carolina women, we got a game against ECU and saw some really good moments,” Nahas told reporters during a team event last week. “But it’s very different when the lights are on, and you’re playing against like competition. Look, we want to be able to compete for everything that we do but at the end of the day, the real competition’s in training and getting better every single day. It’s a journey, and I think it’s a special, unique journey. We’re all in this together and we’re all starting this out together. I would be doing a disservice to the players if I said we’re going to win anything this early in the stage. You want to be competitive, we want to perform well. But we also want to see an evolution and a growth each and every day.”

So, if all the teams seemingly treat the Challenge Cup like a hot potato, seemingly no one comfortable to declare “We’re in it to win it” where does that leave the competition itself?

Time will tell, of course, and the rhetoric around the Challenge Cup may require tweaks to the format, scheduling or prioritization of the competition in the future. Having said that, while the coaches are trying to back off “If we ain’t first, we’re last” talking points, they may only be balancing a strong desire among the players to win a trophy.

“If I said [we’re using the Challenge Cup as an evaluation period] to my players they’ll be saying ‘We’re going in to win it,’ because they don’t have any other way of thinking here. So, absolutely, we want to make sure that we’re competitive. But I’m not naïve going into this, knowing that we’ve still got a lot of work to do and a lot of building to do,” said Stoney, who has previously complimented her Wave FC players’ fierce competitive spirit.

And the same goes for the other expansion side, according to their coach.

“I don’t think any player that’s playing at this level goes in to not win a game,” said Coombe. “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.”

Will this lead the way to San Diego emerging out of nowhere to win the Challenge Cup? It certainly won’t be easy, but you never know. We’ll get our first sense on Saturday when they play Angel City FC in their Challenge Cup opener.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.