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On Saturday, two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC will kick off the NWSL Challenge Cup, month-long tournament that will mark the return of professional team sports in America. All 23 games will be held in the Salt Lake City area.
Each team will play in four preliminary-round games that will conclude on July 13. From there, the eight clubs will be seeded according to their point total and advance to the knockout round. The single-elimination tournament will culminate in the July 26 final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Every game is available to stream on CBS All Access, and both the final and this weekend’s opening tilt between the Courage and the Thorns will also be televised on CBS. Fans outside the US and Canada can watch the entire tournament on Twitch.
To get you ready for soccer’s long-awaited return, we’ve picked a player from each team to keep your eye on this tournament, listed in order of their team’s draw.
Chicago Red Stars – Yuki Nagasato
The Red Stars’ biggest test this tournament will be trying to piece together an offense without reigning league MVP Sam Kerr. Last year, with the help of Kerr’s 18 goals, the team finished second in the league in goals scored. Kerr, the league’s all-time leading scorer, helped carry the Red Stars all the way to the league championship, where they fell 4-0 to the Courage.
Replacing Kerr’s production will require a group effort. Expect Yuki Nagasato to lead the charge. A 2011 World Cup champion, Nagasato was the team leader in assists last season with eight, but will need to grow into an even bigger scoring role for Chicago after totalling eight goals in 2019. Playing on the wing last season, Nagasato flourished, but her position for this tournament is more uncertain. Last year, Kerr was on the receiving end of seven of Nagasato’s eight regular season assists — Casey Short scored on the only other one. Nagasato went on to be an MVP finalist, but now the question is whether she will be able to maintain that form without playing next to Kerr.
This pass from Y\u016Bki Nagasato to Sam Kerr is one of the best ones I've seen in recent times. Exquisite is an understatement.pic.twitter.com/n6sW3AQ3lY
— Adi (@AdityaQuadros) September 22, 2019
Washington Spirit – Andi Sullivan
The Spirit have been in a bit of a rebuild over the last few seasons. After finishing near the bottom of the table in 2018, they retooled their roster with a bevy of young players and just narrowly missed out on the playoffs in 2019. And while Rose Lavelle’s brilliant World Cup made her a household name last summer, it’s her midfield partner Andi Sullivan who sits at the center of the Spirit’s young core.
Since winning the MAC Hermann Trophy and being drafted first overall, Sullivan has done everything and more that’s been asked of her by the Spirit. Her technical ability and poise on the ball is must-watch and her pass accuracy has been 84% over the last two seasons. After spending time with the national team in the spring before the shutdown, Sullivan will return to a much different situation given the youth of the Spirit. Sam Staab impressed as a rookie defender last year and should continue to shore up the backline in front of Aubredy Bledsoe, last season’s NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year. But in Salt Lake City, it will still be up to Sullivan to make the most of her recent living room training as she tries to lead the Spirit on a deep tournament run.
Houston Dash – Rachel Daly
The Dash had a difficult 2019 campaign, finishing seventh in the league, but a bright spot for the club was the play of Rachel Daly. When she was on the pitch, the team’s goal differential was -9, much better than the team’s overall -15, and the best of any player with more than 1,000 minutes. Daly’s five goals tied for the team-high with the since-departed Sofia Huerta. Even these numbers were a slight downtick for Daly, who in 2018 was named team MVP after pacing the club with 10 goals. If the English striker can recapture that form, the Dash will be a formidable threat to make a run in the knockout run.
Utah Royals – Amy Rodriguez
The news that the entire Challenge Cup would be held in Utah was welcome news for a team that netted ten more points at home (22) than on the road (12) last season. With USWNT forward Christen Press sitting out the tournament, the Royals will once again turn to Amy Rodriguez for goal scoring production. After 132 national team caps — with the last coming on September 3, 2018 against Chile — including a World Cup championship and 2 Olympic gold medals, Rodriguez was left off the USWNT World Cup roster for France last summer. This allowed Rodriguez to start all 24 games for the Royals last season. She took advantage of the spotlight, scoring a team-high nine goals. Each goal came in a separate match, two were game winners, and two were voted the league’s Goal of the Week.
Rodriguez’s brilliance was on full display against Sky Blue, blasting home a long-distance strike which went on to be nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award and was selected by her fellow teammates as the Utah Royals FC Goal of the Year.
North Carolina Courage – Lynn Williams
The two-time defending champs remain loaded from top to bottom. Even with a sizable portion of the roster away on national team duty last year, they rolled through the regular season and playoffs. A big reason for that was the play of Lynn Williams, who had 12 goals and six assists on the season. Crucially, Williams continued to perform even when the national team players returned.
No American woman scored more professional goals last year than Williams. No American woman has scored more pro goals the past two or three years combined than Williams, either. Williams herself was off to a hot start with the USWNT in 2019 under new coach Vlatko Andonovski before everything was shut down. Playing in seven games, and starting four, Williams three goals and added five assists. Now, she will have the opportunity to build on that momentum as the Courage seek to extend their remarkable run of success.
Sky Blue FC – Kailen Sheridan
Sky Blue will be playing without team leader Carli Lloyd (knee injury) as well as fellow national teamer Mallory Pugh (hip injury), who GM Alyse LaHue traded four draft picks to acquire in the offseason. Lloyd is a big loss on the offensive side, after accounting for eight of the team’s 20 goals last season.
The loss of those two scoring threats, in addition to the offensive struggles all of last season, will put more onus on the defense, led by goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. Last season, Sheridan shared the league lead in total saves (86) and save percentage (77%). On top of that, Sheridan proved she has a knack for phenomenal saves when called upon, as evidenced by her three Save of the Week honors last year. Expect the Canadian’s excellent tactical skill and positional awareness to be on full display in Utah.
Portland Thorns – Sophia Smith
After last season’s playoff run ended in the semifinals, the Portland Thorns took the opportunity to perform some serious offseason retooling. The decision to hit the reset button surprised many, but the Thorns knew they needed to think big to have any hope of dethroning the Courage.
The Thorns’ many offseason moves included trading away second-leading scorer Midge Purce for Raquel Rodriguez, acquiring Becky Sauerbrunn, and swapping Emily Sonnett for the first pick in the 2020 draft. That pick turned into Sophia Smith, the Stanford standout who declared for the draft after only her sophomore year. Smith was the only player with remaining college eligibility to train with the USWNT in its January training camp, is one of the all-time leading scorers for the under-20 national team, and scored a hat trick in the semifinals of the College Cup. Though Smith will reportedly be on a minutes restriction due to a minor injury, her debut is still among the most hotly anticipated in recent memory. And with Tobin Heath sitting out the tournament, the Thorns will need Smith to provide a spark upfront whenever she steps on field.
MOMENT OF THE DAY— FIFA Women's World Cup (@FIFAWWC) August 10, 2018
What a goal from Sophia Smith! ????????
Quel but de Sophia Smith ! ????????
???? Highlights ???? https://t.co/T2VTbkqUM9
???? Agenda ???? https://t.co/o7i0bnMZUm #U20WWC pic.twitter.com/HuzN2Im2TI
OL Reign – Lauren Barnes
The new-look Reign will be led for the first time by coach Farid Benstiti, who will look to rely on veterans such as Lauren Barnes. Since the team’s inception in 2013, Barnes has been a stalwart at center back. Despite a rash of injuries and absences last season, Barnes was the key to a Reign backline that conceded the third-fewest goals in the league. She finished third in Defender of the Year voting, after having won the award in 2016.
Especially important in a tournament setting with minimal time for rest and recovery, Barnes played the full 90 in 24 appearances last season, missing just one match due to yellow card accumulation. She won 10 tackles last season and conceded only nine, won 72.2% of her tackles, and led the team by winning over 59% of her 113 attempted duels. While the Reign’s previous possession-based system may change with their new coach, last year Barnes led the team with 1,609 touches and 1,323 pass attempts, third-highest in the league. Anyone wanting to study positioning at the center back position ought to focus on Barnes, who seems to always be in the right spot.
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