Running alongside the NWSL season this year, the UKG Challenge Cup presents clubs with the opportunity to earn some extra hardware. But it won’t come easy, here are the top three opening matches to keep your eyes on.
The UKG Challenge Cup kicks off this week, promising lots of action with powerhouses meeting in the first couple of matchups. The Challenge Cup is running concurrently with the NWSL season this year, with games dropped in between regular season games. It will conclude in September with teams competing for a recently announced prize of a million dollars.
There are a total of five matches on Wednesday for opening day. If you have to pick and choose your matches, here are three that look to be the most entertaining for the Challenge Cup kickoff.
3 NWSL Challenge Cup matches to watch:
3. Washington Spirit at NJ/NY Gotham
Details: Wednesday, April 19, 7:30 p.m. EST, streaming on Paramount Plus
The Washington Spirit are currently second in the overall NWSL standings with no losses so far. They beat the North Carolina Courage this past weekend in a two-to-one edge-of-your-seat victory courtesy of a Trinity Rodman goalazo and an Ashely Hatch penalty kick. Their aggressive attacking approach has served them well so far, delivering them a victory over OL Reign and a tie against Racing Louisville. The Spirit were the runner-up to the Challenge Cup last year, and they’ll be looking for that top result this time.
This game is sure to be a battle of giants, with Gotham starting their challenge cup at home taking on the Spirit. Gotham’s only loss came from their home opener against the Reign, with them managing to pull out two wins against Angel City and Orlando Pride. Gotham were the runners-up for the Challenge Cup back in 2021, losing to the Portland Thorns in penalties. They’re going to be fired up to start this journey at home and look to apply their defensive pressure and ambitious approach to the Spirit’s shaky defense.
The matchup between Andi Sullivan and Kristie Mewis in the midfield will be something to keep your eye on as the national team players will surely clash in epic one on one battles. As well as the Trinity Rodman and Kelley O’Hara battle that is likely to take place on the wings. This game also has the potential for goals to stack up quickly, and energy will be high the whole time. In short, Gotham has the stronger defensive power, but the Spirit have a better-attacking presence, leaving it possible for either side to come out on top. But based on the last few games, Gotham will likely find a way around the Spirit to pull off the win at home.
Score Prediction: NJ/NY Gotham FC 3-2 Washington Spirit
2. OL Reign at Angel City FC
Details: Wednesday, April 19, 10 p.m. EST, streaming on CBS Sports Network
The Reign are coming off an amazing last-minute home opener win, with all the attacking power of Seattle behind them as they travel down the coast to take on Angel City FC. The Reign have all the usual suspects with them that ensure success, including Jess Fishlock, Olivia Van Der Jagt, Megan Rapinoe, Alana Cook, and Phallon Tullis-Joyce. Not to mention the passionate leadership of Laura Harvey who was elated to celebrate their win against the San Diego Wave last weekend with her squad. The Reign are as dangerous as ever, if they can only finish their shots.
Angel City hasn’t had the start to their season that had hoped for. They’re even on the board, with one win, one loss, and one tie so far, earning them seventh place which has to feel a little familiar considering their eight-place finish from last season. Angel City has shown promise on the pitch, scoring five goals so far. But they tend to look all over the place at the moment with an uncertain midfield that Savannah McCaskill struggles to hold down all on her own. But their problems might all be solved if one newly signed Julie Ertz makes her debut for Angel City on Wednesday, introducing a powerful presence for LA.
This match, like many of Angel City’s, will be fought and won in the midfield. The Reign possesses one of the best midfields in the league, but that could all change when Ertz laces up. If Rose Lavelle is healthy for this match, that could make a world of difference as well. Watching Alyssa Thompson try to weave through Emily Sonnett, Alana Cook, and Sam Hiatt will prove entertaining no matter the outcome. Not to mention if Fishlock, Huitema, and Balcer can break through Sarah Gorden and Megan Reid. All these battles will be key to breakthrough moments for both sides to earn points. But in the end, this match seems too close to call, likely ending in a tie.
Score Prediction: Angel City FC 1-1 OL Reign
1. Portland Thorns at San Diego Wave
Details: Wednesday, April 19, 10:00 p.m. EST, streaming on Paramount Plus
The Portland Thorns hit the road this week after tying their home opener at Providence Park after facing down a determined Houston Dash. Although the Thorns didn’t get the result they wanted last weekend, they’re still top of the table and for good reason. Sophia Smith has been a powerhouse as usual, scoring goals on goals on goals for Portland just three games into the season. Their midfield is working in sync better than anyone else’s at the moment with Sam Coffey at the helm, backed up the talents of Crystal Dunn and Christine Sinclair. The Thorns are still championship material, building on their success as always, and looking to start the Challenge Cup in on the right foot.
San Diego will be looking to improve on their loss from this past weekend when they fell to the Reign by a second-half stoppage-time goal. But the numbers don’t always tell the full story, and the Wave should be proud of the performance they put up against the Reign. If any other keeper had been on the pitch for either side, the scoreline would’ve been dramatically different with Alex Morgan having several really good looks and Kalien Sheridan continuing to make phenomenal saves. The Wave are still red hot, with the potential to take over a game such as their 3-1 win against the Courage. They’re also playing at home, and the power of the Snap has always afforded the Wave an advantage well before the whistle blows.
The Portland Thorns aren’t invincible, even though they’re still undefeated. Their game against Houston proved it’s possible to at least stifle Sophia Smith and what better backline to take a swing at that than San Diego. Naomi Girma will be looking to lead a confident defense that can handle the pressure of the Thorns’ attack. If anyone is capable of bringing the Thorns their first loss of the year, it’s the Wave. These sides are both strong, but with the Wave’s defensive line and Sheridan’s recent save streak, they might just be able to pull out the win, but it’s going to be close.
Score Prediction: San Diego Wave 2-1 Portland Thorns