Guaranteed quarterfinal game in Challenge Cup taking pressure off NWSL teams while allowing for youth development

Chicago Red Stars defender Julia Bingham (23) defends against Portland Thorns FC forward Simone Charley, center, during the first half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The fact that all eight teams competing in the the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup are guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinal round has been a topic of much discussion about the OL Reign. It’s even been fodder for some lighthearted comedy.

“We laugh about it a little bit,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “Like, ‘Oh it doesn’t really matter, everyone’s through to the quarters.’ And obviously we make our little jokes because we’re funny people.”

But when Fishlock and defender Lauren Barnes, both of whom chuckled as they heard the question, got to talking about how teams can benefit from the tweak in the tournament’s original format, what emerged was no laughing matter.

“I think it relieved a lot of stress coming into this tournament,” Barnes said. “Obviously with a condensed preseason, condensed season, there is a lot of pressure to perform and also stay injury free and all these other elements that come into a condensed season.”

The Reign pair articulated a sentiment shared throughout the league. With no danger of being eliminated by way of finishing last in the preliminary round of the tournament, players and coaches can rest easy. They can give younger players more minutes. They take time to develop chemistry.

The unfortunate part of the situation is what caused the format change in the first place. The Orlando Pride had to withdraw from the Challenge Cup after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among the team’s players and staff. The news sent shockwaves through the soccer community and brought about condolences from around the NWSL, as well as expressions of frustration and dismay from the Pride themselves.

But if there’s one positive thing that came out of the Pride’s withdrawal, it’s how the change in format has changed the mindset of the remaining teams.

The Utah Royals FC, for example, are a younger team in 2020 with a new coach, formation and captain. It’s one of the teams that is looking at the first four games of the tournament as a makeshift preseason.

“I think this definitely kind of takes a little bit of the weight off our shoulders knowing that we have time to really build this chemistry and really get going into the first few games, so that’s definitely kind of a relief,” Royals rookie Tziarra King said.

Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames said his plan with the tournament is, for the first two games, to script exactly who plays when, and for how many minutes. He said he’d divert from that somewhat for the third game.

Dames said having one less team doesn’t affect his approach to or preparation throughout the tournament. But it does give him a chance to see what his younger players can do and see what kind of team he’ll have in 2021, he said.

“We finally have a format here where it’s not win at all costs,” Dames said. “Everybody still gets to the fifth game. And if you’re a coach that likes to develop young players to try to bring young players along, this is an ideal setting.”

Most teams have played two games in the tournament with the exception of the Red Stars and North Carolina Courage, who have played three. The Portland Thorns and Washington Spirit play their third game Sunday night.

Royals forward Amy Rodriguez, whose team picked up its first win Saturday, didn’t specify whether Utah would experiment with formations or any other tactical tweaks. But she made it clear that the first four games would be used as build-ups for the start of the knockout rounds.

“I will say that we are going to be very tactical and strategic in how we play these first four games knowing that game No. 5 is do or die and it’s a must-win for us,” Rodriguez said. “Our mind is definitely on games 5, 6 and 7.”

The Spirit look at the situation a little differently. While they acknowledge the guaranteed quarterfinal game alleviates some pressure, they still need to bring a winning intensity to every game to make sure they’re at their best when the games become win-or-go-home.

“You can’t just turn that on and off,” Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan said. “You want to play in every single game to win so that by the time you’re in the knockout phases, you’re ready. So it does change a little bit of that mentality. But at the same time, it doesn’t because you need to be prepared and these group games are good practice for that and we need to hold ourselves to the standard and expectation that we are going to win every game.”

As for Fishlock, she likes the change both for its competitive implications and how it can be used to protect players.

“Everyone will be gearing up for the knockout stages and that’s going to be so exciting,” Fishlock said. “But from a health and safety perspective, I think that’s the best way to go. And like I said, we laugh and joke about it, but it’s actually, I think, a really good thing.”