NWSL Challenge Cup 2022 Midway Roundup

Like previous editions, the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup continues to bring non-stop action and wild surprises. With 23 matches played and 16 remaining, including the playoffs, we are about midway through the competition. So, with playoff contention on the line, let’s break down where teams stand heading into the final stretch of the group stage.

The Eastern Group

The eastern group contains the North Carolina Courage, NJ/NY Gotham FC, Orlando Pride, and the Washington Spirit. Many predicted that the 2021 NWSL Championship side Washington Spirit would take the group. Heavy with big-name veterans, Gotham presented as a major preseason contender. Instead, the Courage leads the group and the entire competition with eight points midway through.

The Courage entered the competition as a dark horse candidate but loaded with a mix of versatile young and veteran talent. Questions around the team surrounded coaching changes, player familiarity, and arguably the toughest group. The Courage fit their famous underdog mantra for the first time in years. They took the opportunity and ran. The group could be decided when the Courage host the Spirit on the last weekend of group stage play.

After a slow start, the Spirit are a snowball picking up speed. Still undefeated, their comeback against the Courage to rescue a point kept fans on the edge of their seats.

They then went on to secure their first win against the Pride. With minimal offseason turnover and a head of steam, look for them to try to overtake the Courage or make a case for the highest number two seed.

With Orlando’s hopes realistically ended, they look toward the regular season. However, Gotham could still make a push. With one of the best defenses in the league, they are hard to beat. Their problems lie with consistency and solidifying the midfield. New arrival Kristie Mewis may need more time to develop midfield chemistry. Expect Gotham to finish third in the group.

The Central Group

The Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City Current, and Racing Louisville FC comprise the central group. Heading into the competition, this group offered the least predictability. At the midway point, nobody predicted the current standings.

Due to several high-profile offseason acquisitions, Kansas City entered with a slight edge. Instead, the side sit at second but is tied with Chicago for the most points. Injuries plague both sides at the midway point. Kansas City forward Lynn Williams and Chicago defender Tierna Davidson suffered season-ending injuries. Midfielder Sam Mewis continues to miss time for the Current while rehabbing an injury. Forward Kealia Watt‘s ACL rehab has continued from the end of last season. Both teams experimented on defense, with Chicago running out a new three-back system and Kansas City with a pair of rookie center backs. Their match-up to end the group stage could decide the group.

Louisville and Houston are down but not out. Louisville sits two points behind the leaders. Houston has the most points of any fourth-place team. Both sides boast incredible forward lines but concede with inconsistent defensive performances. One of the most thrilling matches so far saw Louisville lead Houston by two goals at halftime. Houston came back in the second half to win three to two.

If either team cleans up defensively, they could still take the number one seed in the central group.

The Western Group

In the west, NWSL mainstays Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign take on expansion sides Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC. At the midway point, the expansion sides unsurprisingly occupy the bottom two spots. OL Reign and Portland lead with seven points, but OL Reign has a game in hand.

Angel City flashes moments of brilliance, especially with the return of Christen Press. However, with only one point and no midfield answers in sight, they are realistically eliminated. San Diego shows more promise. While they also struggle in the middle of the park, they offer more depth than their SoCal counterparts. Even if they do not successfully make a push for the Challenge Cup playoffs, their goal would have been to develop chemistry as an expansion side. The Wave look promising for the regular season.

After losing last season’s European imports, the Reign still look like an impressive front-runner. Led by one of the league’s strongest midfields, the preseason’s favorites to take the west sit in the driver’s seat. Their only question is the lack of forward production, with only one of their five goals scored by forwards. However, their midfielders are capable of scoring enough goals to spare.

With a new head coach, the Thorns look wildly different in 2022. The team implemented a hybrid three-five defender system and pushed Christine Sinclair back up to the forward line. Stingy on defense, the side so far, conceded the fewest goals of all teams to play four games. However, without Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, and Angela Salem, their midfield cannot offer the same bite. Expect the Thorns to take second in the west but make a strong case for the best second-place team.

The Competition Continues

Looking past the midway point, two matches in the last group stage week contain the top two teams in their respective groups. Kansas City hosts Chicago, and North Carolina hosts Washington. Two of the three groups could be decided on the last weekend of group play. However, after a dramatic Twitter argument, neither could be the spiciest match-up yet to play.

After a draw between Washington and Gotham, the Washington social media team posted a friendly banter clip of Ashley Sanchez taking on Ali Krieger. The encounter heated up with comments from Ashlyn Harris, Trinity Rodman, and McCall Zerboni. With a rivalry brewing, the return visit promises fireworks.

With group stage games yet to play and the playoffs around the corner, Beyond Women’s Sports continues to provide Challenge Cup coverage and analysis. Follow us online or on Twitter. You can also interact with the author on Twitter.

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About Tim Antoniewicz

Tim is a supporter of the NWSL, USWNT, and women's soccer/football/fútbol around the world.

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