The NWSL Challenge Cup ended on Sunday after Houston Dash claimed their first-ever league title over defending finalists Chicago Red Stars. With goals from Sophie Schmidt and Shea Groom, the Dash finished with a 2-0 win to cap off the eight-teamed tournament that ran from Jun. 27 to Jul. 26 in Utah.
Frankly, the tournament couldn’t have gone better. Most significantly, no players or staff caught COVID-19.
After an action-packed month, there were inevitably stand-out conclusions to draw from the Cup. Read on to find out some of the biggest takeaways.
COUNTERED THE MEDIA’S SPECULATIONS ABOUT COVID DRAGGING DOWN WOMEN’S SPORTS
When COVID-19 forced pro sports leagues to bring their seasons to a dead halt, the media brought a lot of focus to how the situation would wipe the progress women’s sports leagues have made over the last couple years. The NWSL’s progress last year was especially significant, thanks to better TV deals and their attendance increasing by over 70 per cent after the U.S. women’s national team, made up entirely of NWSL players, won the FIFA World Cup. But coming into the Challenge Cup, the NWSL proved they had little to worry about as they were the first professional league to return to the field, with Secret backing them up as a lead sponsor.
THE CHICAGO RED STARS DON’T NEED SAM KERR
Sam Kerr scored over half the Red Stars’ goals last year. She was named League MVP and also earned the Golden Boot for a third consecutive year, but following the 2019 season with the NWSL, she signed with Chelsea FC of the Women’s Super League. It was a wonder what the Chicago Red Stars, and the NWSL, would be without her. It didn’t seem to be much of a problem, however, as Chicago matched their success from last year and became league finalists for a second year in a row.
THE LEAGUE IS COMPLETELY UNPREDICTABLE
Going into the tournament, the North Carolina Courage were the favourites to win the Cup. They went undefeated the entire preliminary round, but only to be eliminated in the quarterfinals by the Portland Thorns, who were ranked last place heading into the knockout stage. After that match, anything was possible and the Challenge Cup became anyone’s tournament. In the third quarterfinal, No. 7 Sky Blue FC took the victory over No. 2 Washington Spirit. Betting on the winner of the tournament was very dangerous territory at this point, but there’s arguably more excitement in watching a competition if there’s no clear winner.
IF IT’S AIRED, PEOPLE WILL WATCH
The Challenge Cup had just two games aired on national TV and both those games smashed the previous NWSL viewership record. The opening match between North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC drew 522,000 viewers while the championship game between Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars set the new record of 653,000. The viewership record before the tournament was 190,000 from a Houston-Portland game in 2014. The Challenge Cup was the beginning of a three-year media rights deal between the NWSL and CBS.
HIDDEN STARS HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO SHINE
Many of the players from the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) were either injured or had opted out of the tournament due to personal reasons. The absence of the 2019 FIFA World Cup champions altered the NWSL’s team rankings, but it also shone the spotlight on up-and-coming NWSL stars, such as Shea Groom, Britt Eckerstrom and Savannah McCaskill. Tournament champions Houston Dash were the only team without USWNT players on their roster. They boasted multiple Canadian national team stars, including Nichelle Prince, Allysha Chapman and Sophie Schmidt.
Featured photo credit: CBC (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)