Born of necessity in pandemic, NWSL Challenge Cup has become marquee event for women's soccer

Now in its third year, the NWSL's Challenge Cup has become one of the most highly anticipated and important tournaments on the women's pro soccer calendar. 

12-team competition kicks off Friday, with final slated for May 7

Houston Dash's Shea Groom celebrates after receiving the game MVP award after her team's 2-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars in the inaugural NWSL Challenge Cup final on July 26, 2020, in Sandy, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Now in its third year, the NWSL's Challenge Cup has become one of the most highly anticipated and important tournaments on the women's pro soccer calendar. 

Two years ago, while the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball were still struggling to deal with how to operate in the global pandemic, the NWSL became the first U.S. professional sports league to return to action in. Its first Challenge Cup held in Utah in late June, earned rave reviews and the round-robin competition became the template that other pro sports leagues used for their respective "bubble tournaments." 

The Challenge Cup became so successful that the NWSL decided to bring it back last year as a special pre-season competition with games played in all 10 home markets. This year's Challenge Cup kicks off on Friday, and has grown to 12 teams with the additions of expansion franchises Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC. The winner of the East, West and Central divisions, as well as the best second-place team overall, advance to the semifinals. The final is slated for May 7, slightly overlapping with the start of the NWSL regular season on April 29. 

'We're not taking this lightly'

Initially conceived as a way to salvage the NWSL's 2020 season during the pandemic, the Challenge Cup has turned into a valuable property for the league, with games airing live on CBS Sports' platforms and Twitch.

Kansas City Current midfielder Desiree Scott , from Winnipeg, has been impressed with how the Challenge Cup has become such a marquee event over such a short period of time. 

"You normally come into this tournament thinking it's kind of a warm-up for the regular season, but it's also a chance for a trophy and there's prize money on the line," Scott told CBC Sports. "Here in Kansas City, we've really prided ourselves on that competitive side of things, whether it's the Challenge Cup or the regular season, so we're not taking this lightly by any means.

"We want to win this tournament and then begin the regular season on a good note." 

Desiree Scott celebrates at the end of Canada's 2-1 win over Chile at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on July 24, 2021, in Sapporo, Japan. (Silvia Izquierdo/The Associated Press)

Hectic schedule

Scott, 34, argues that the Challenge Cup is similar to the regular season in that it's more of a marathon than a sprint. Each club plays the other three teams in its division home and away for a total of six games over a five-week period. It's a hectic schedule with the matches coming fast and furious, and it separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of players and their respective fitness levels. 

"I'm excited for this. It gives us a chance to see where we are individually as players. Fitness-wise, we've put in a lot of work in pre-season, and now we get to put it into practice in games and see if we are game fit," said Scott, who also was a key member of Canada's national women's team that won Olympic gold in Tokyo last summer.

"As a team, we get to see where we stand against other squads. Specifically in our pool, we've got Louisville, Houston and Chicago — tough matchups. So, it's a great gauge to see where we're at going into the regular season."

Scott opted out of the inaugural tournament in 2020 due to family reasons, but played in last year's competition. The Challenge Cup has a hectic travel schedule, but that's nothing new for the veteran midfielder who has earned 173 caps and played all around the world for Canada since making her national team debut in 2010. 

"Obviously, I don't like to miss anything, whether it's for club or country. Having to miss [the 2020 Challenge Cup] was tough on my part, but I'm still putting in the work at my age, and I'm ready to rock," Scott said. 

"For me, I live out of a suitcase, so I'm used to the travel that comes with it. We've got home and away with back-to-back games, which is something that comes for us in the regular season for us. It's called the Challenge Cup, but for me, it's just what we do." 

Portland Thorns teammates swarm Morgan Weaver (22) after she made the game-winning penalty kick against NJ/NY Gotham FC during the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup in Portland, Ore. (Serena Morones/The Associated Press)
Except for a two-year spell with English club Notts County, Scott has been in the NWSL since 2013. Her fearlessness in the tackle and ability to break up plays as a defensive midfielder has earned her the nickname 'The Destroyer,' a moniker that she has firmly embraced. Her combative skills at the Olympics proved crucial in Canada reaching the top of the podium.

Scott's earnest displays at club level always drew compliments from her teammates and opponents from around the league. But when she returned to the NWSL as an Olympic champion last summer, there was a new level of respect 

"You know what, right after the Olympics, I felt like things had really changed. People were looking at me like, 'Wow, she's an Olympic gold medallist,' and I looked at myself differently at that point, too. I was just riding that high and that wave from accomplishing something so incredible," Scott said. 

"Life hasn't changed too much, but there is that little bit of respect now that is put on our names as Canadians. We're playing in the U.S., we're in an American league… But now, there's a little bit more respect for the Canadians who play in this league."


John Molinaro

Freelance contributor

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including CBC Sports, Sportsnet and Sun Media. During his time at CBC Sports, John travelled to South Africa to cover the 2010 FIFA World Cup for He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Canadian game.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?