With the novel coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc on the nation’s professional sports schedules, the NWSL has settled on a plan to safely conclude the season.
First reported by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff, and confirmed yesterday by the league, a tournament called the Challenge Cup will see the NWSL champion crowned in Utah - but in a World-Cup style round robin tournament, rather than the conventional 24-game league season.
#NWSL announces 2020 Challenge Cup presented by @ProcterGamble and @SecretDeodorant with the tournament's semis, final, and MVP award presented by @budweiserusa: https://t.co/0SPa8IzuaT pic.twitter.com/to7YNDBP3Y— NWSL (@NWSL) May 27, 2020
Each team will play four preliminary games, the results of which will determine the seedings for the next phase, a direct knockout round for the top eight teams. Needless to say, this unique plan could have some interesting ramifications for Sky Blue FC.
An immediate downside of the proposal that comes to mind regarding SBFC would be the matches they’d have to play in the first round of such a tournament. If all-important first four games are based on the geographical regions of the 9 teams, Sky Blue would be drawn into a slate of matches that would likely include last season’s regular and postseason champions, the North Carolina Courage, as well as a Washington Spirit roster loaded with talent such as USWNT star Rose Lavelle.
All Sky Blue needs to do to qualify for the knockout stage is not finish dead last out of every participating team, but last year’s results against these teams show that might not be an easy feat. SBFC played each of the two clubs a combined six times and came out with five losses and a single 0-0 draw.
However, the unique format could also potentially serve as a boost to Sky Blue’s chances this year. As Red Bull fans are well aware, tournament soccer often comes in tandem with chaos and shock results. Underdog teams don’t need to outlast their competitors for a span of months - they just need to play better for ninety minutes.
In addition, without a long schedule to build up form and roster cohesion, even a league superpower like the Courage could be prone to conceding quickly to Sky Blue and crumbling.
One of the most important features of the announced plan is the fact that there will be no pay cuts for the players. The NWSLPA released a statement alongside the official announcement, outlining that the tournament would come alongside assured salaries and housing for the duration of the tournament, as well as insurance for the entire league. And while several unidentified USWNT stars have reportedly already dropped out of such a plan, the USWNTPA has also provided assurances that their payment will not be in doubt as a result.
The 2020 Challenge Cup will certainly mark unprecedented territory for every team in the league. With teams coming in at varying levels of match-fitness every game will be crucial, and it will likely come down to talented individuals to tip the scales in favor of one team or another. And when one looks at Sky Blue’s roster, that space is an open competition, a chance for anyone to prove themselves.
Carli Lloyd, the team’s top goalscorer and USWNT veteran, comes to mind as the front runner, but Lloyd will be 38 by the time such a tournament ends, and it’s yet to be seen if she has the legs to repeatedly put in multiple effective 90 minute performances in a tightly scheduled tournament. Margaret “Midge” Purce and Mallory Pugh are two young attackers who were just brought into the team this off season that could also prove to be the spark plug Sky Blue needs to propel itself to success in Utah. Such an unique tournament offers the chance for strong first impressions of these new players hoping to go down as some of the best in club history.