Renewal notices for 2024 season tickets have been sent out to current OL Reign season ticket members, with two major changes immediately noticeable. The first is that there will not be a Reign/Sounders doubleheader in 2024. The second is that the team is selling a 13-game ticket package, which does not appear to include any Challenge Cup matches.
For the doubleheader, the team noted in its renewal FAQ that they “appreciate the feedback we have received from our fans and are taking the time to create an event that is in alignment with the needs of our most loyal fans, but for 2024, there will not be a Doubleheader.” The doubleheader lost a lot of its novelty and luster now that OL Reign are permanent tenants at Lumen Field, and that sentiment was further reinforced when the team set a Challenge Cup attendance record last weekend when hosting Portland in a standalone game.
With Utah Royals and Bay FC entering the league in 2024, the Challenge Cup will require a major rethinking if it is to remain a part of league plans going forward. To maintain a balanced schedule, teams will now be playing 26 regular-season games, up from the 22 games played the past two seasons.
A 14-team league also has significantly fewer options for evenly dividing teams into groups for a cup competition – there can either be two groups of 7 teams, or seven groups of two teams. With seven-team groups, the league could keep the current six-game group stage by having every team play the other six teams in their group once, with the trade-off of an unbalanced home/road schedule for the tournament. Thanks to expansion there is now a reasonable seven-team geographic split, with Seattle, Portland, Utah, San Diego, Angel City, Bay FC and either Kansas City or Houston in a West group, and the remaining teams in an East group. The top two teams from each group could then advance to a knockout round similar to the current format.
However, a more intriguing option would be to convert the tournament to a more traditional knockout format from the start, similar to the men’s US Open Cup and many European cup competitions. With 14 teams, the league could give the top two finishers from 2023 a bye in the first round, pairing up the remaining 12 teams based on their record in the prior season, with the opening round a home-and-home series to give every club at least one home game in the tournament. After that, the higher remaining seed could host all the way through the final, with a few weeks between each round to help promote ticket sales.
Additionally, with the recent relaunch of the USL W-League and upcoming launch of the USL Super League, the tournament could truly become open and mirror the US Open Cup by giving the opportunity for teams from every sanctioned US league to participate. To avoid too much fixture congestion, NWSL teams could enter the competition after the first few rounds, similar to when MLS clubs enter.
Whether we see any of these changes to the Challenge Cup, or whether it goes away entirely, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear — the NWSL has a prime opportunity to rethink some of their competition and move away from having teams play a subset of opponents four or more times per season.