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NWSL Challenge Cup Preview

Soccer

HAPPY FRIDAY! Did you miss us? We’re in your inbox for a third straight day (you’re welcome) because the second annual National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) Challenge Cup begins at 8:30 p.m. ET tonight with a rematch of last year’s final. So we’re giving you everything you need to know before the action kicks off. Let the games begin.

April 09, 2021
Source: Houston Dash/Giphy
Source: Houston Dash/Giphy

QUOTE OF THE DAY

We were walking out to the pitch before the game and obviously you could see a celebratory locker room…and it was full of Budweiser. You're looking and thinking ‘well we want to win to do that and not see pictures of other people doing it.’

— Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly, on her team’s extra motivation heading into last year’s 2020 Challenge Cup Final. Not only did the Dash win the title, Daly was named the 2020 Challenge Cup MVP, winner of the tournament’s Golden Boot (awarded to the highest scorer) and she graced us with this epic celebration. Cheers to that.

⚽️ How it started

SOURCE: RICK BOWMER/AP PHOTO

Following the COVID-19 sports pause, the NWSL was the first professional North American team sports league to return to action in 2020. After the season was postponed in March, the inaugural Challenge Cup kicked off in June with record-setting viewership numbers. Music to our ears.

  • And although the Orlando Pride withdrew from the tourney before play began, there were no positive COVID-19 tests throughout the tournament. The league’s successful month-long bubble tourney paved the way for other sports leagues to return to action.
  • Behind stellar play from the aforementioned MVP Daly, the Houston Dash hoisted the Challenge Cup trophy after defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2–0 in the final.

🚨 This year’s format

SOURCE: OL REIGN/TWITTER

While the 2020 Challenge Cup was played in a bubble in Salt Lake City, Utah, this year’s tourney will be held in home markets. The NWSL’s 10 teams (expansion team Racing Louisville FC joins the fray this year) are divided into two divisions — East and West — with each team playing four matches, one against each team in their division.

  • From there, the top team in each division advances to the championship game scheduled for Saturday, May 8th, airing on CBS in the U.S. and on Twitch in Canada. HYFR.
  • And while the Challenge Cup doesn’t have an impact on regular season standings, it does offer teams a chance to sort things out and gain momentum ahead of the May 15th regular season start. Give us all of the soccer, please.

Another major factor in this year’s Challenge Cup is the scheduling. With an international break overlapping with the start of the tournament, NWSL teams will be without some of their top talent for at least the first two games. Teams with deeper rosters will be eager to capitalize and grab points in those early matches. Keep an eye out.

💪 The teams

SOURCE: USATSI

Top contenders: As the regular season champions and NWSL Championship winners for both 2018 and 2019, North Carolina Courage had an unexpected early exit from the 2020 Challenge Cup, but we feel they’re destined to return to their winning ways in the East Division thanks to their deep roster.

  • The West Division — led by Portland Thorns FC and the Chicago Red Stars — is seriously stacked. With all-time leading international goal scorer and Canadian Christine Sinclair as their captain, the Thorns should have no trouble finding the back of the net.
  • As for the Red Stars, they’ll be entering the tourney with a new ownership group and be playing with a chip on their shoulders as they look to avenge last year’s loss in the final. Watch out, world.

Middle of the pack: In the East, the Washington Spirit and (newly rebranded!) NJ/NY Gotham FC will contend to overtake the favored Courage. The Spirit are stacked on defense with USWNT members Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett. As for Gotham, it’s all about the offense, with USWNT strikers Carli Lloyd and Midge Purce leading the way.

  • The Houston Dash and OL Reign have the odds stacked against them in the West Division. Even though the defending champion Dash have most of their core players returning, they’ll likely struggle at the start with players out for international friendlies.
  • The Reign might benefit from their later start, as they open their season against the Dash on April 16th. With offensive stars Megan Rapinoe (pronounced Ra-PEE-noe), Quinn and Tziarra King, the Reign could defy expectations this go round.

Just happy to be here: Rounding out the East are the Orlando Pride and new kids on the block Racing Louisville FC. The Pride will be competing in their first-ever Challenge Cup, after having to withdraw last year due to COVID-19, while new Louisville fans will just be happy to see their team take the field.

  • The final team in the West is Kansas City (KC) NWSL (formerly the Utah Royals). While KC probably won’t hoist the trophy, we’re still celebrating their new ownership group, which includes former college soccer player Brittany Matthews, Patrick Mahomes’ fiancée.

💃 The offense

SOURCE: WASHINGTON SPIRIT/TWITTER

Trinity Rodman, Washington Spirit, Forward: As the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NWSL draft, Rodman will make her highly anticipated debut against the stacked Courage tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. ET. With key pieces of the Spirit offense playing internationally, Dennis Rodman’s daughter she will have a chance to make an immediate impact.

Megan Rapinoe, OL Reign, Forward: Wherever Rapinoe goes, we follow. After opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, Rapinoe is excited to return to the NWSL. After the USWNT’s April friendlies, Rapinoe will likely be back in time for the Reign’s tilt with the stacked Portland Thorns on April 21st. Mark your calendar.

Shea Groom, Houston Dash, Midfielder: Groom’s breakout three-goal performance in the Dash’s 2020 Challenge Cup run earned her a new three-year contract ahead of last year’s Fall Series. And Groom brought the heat again, scoring three goals and adding two assists. Houston, other teams might have a problem.

Desiree Scott, KC NWSL, Midfielder: This year will be somewhat of a homecoming for the CanWNT vet, as she first played for FC Kansas City during the NWSL’s inaugural 2013 season. She’ll bring a wealth of experience to this fresh-start club after returning from playing in Canada’s international friendlies.

🏆 Defense wins championships

SOURCE: CHICAGO RED STARS

Casey Krueger (née Short), Chicago Red Stars, Defender: With USWNT defenders Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson away at friendlies, the Red Stars will rely heavily on Krueger, who started every game for Chicago during last year’s Challenge Cup run.

Abby Erceg, North Carolina Courage, Defender: This lockdown defender was named to the 2020 Challenge Cup Best XI and, heads up, she can get it done on offense too. Get you a girl who can do both.

Bella Bixby, Portland Thorns FC, Goalkeeper: Bixby’s breakout performance during the first few games of last year’s Challenge Cup was sadly cut short due to an ACL tear. We can’t wait to watch the Oregon-native run it back in her home market this year.

Ashlyn Harris, Orlando Pride, Goalkeeper: After being left off the USWNT roster for upcoming friendlies and the Pride missing out on the 2020 tournament, we’re expecting big things from Harris in her Challenge Cup debut. Talk about mom goals.