ROB GRAY/ISI PHOTOS

A compressed preseason. Two weeks with games every four days. All knockout games going straight to penalties without extra time.

In retrospect, the defensive-minded quarterfinals shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

Goalkeepers reigned supreme on Friday, much to the delight of #GKUnion. Britt Eckerstrom had what may be the performance of the Cup in her first start for the Portland Thorns. Houston Dash’s Jane Campbell erased doubts from earlier games. Sky Blue’s Kailen Sheridan was sturdy in the run of play and in penalties. And Alyssa Naeher reminded everyone she is the best — and that the Chicago Red Stars keeper has been here before.

Still, the almost-total lack of offense was surprising. Whether it was an Orlando curse extended to the rest of the league, or a product of the situation, few fans expected to see three goalless draws. Things should open up in the semis, as all four remaining teams are more than capable of playing exciting, inspired soccer.

After three big upsets in the quarterfinals, predictions may seem a bit silly. While I’m prepared to be surprised again, here are my best guesses as to what comes next.

PORTLAND THORNS VS. HOUSTON DASH, 12:30PM EST

After an emotional win over North Carolina, Portland has to do everything possible to ensure there is no subsequent trap game. Houston, on the other hand, like a wounded animal after an overly physical game, should come out on the offensive in an effort to set the tone.

I think the Dash can mentally reset. After becoming the early darling of the Cup with a high-scoring affair against Utah and a convincing 2-0 win over the Reign, Houston crashed back to Earth with two straight losses to Sky Blue and Washington. The team’s forwards began to look frustrated with their lack of opportunities, and goalkeeper Jane Campbell made several uncharacteristic mistakes.

But after topping Utah in penalties, Dash coach James Clarkson praised Campbell’s turnaround, reaffirming his belief in her ability moving forward.

“I think she’s the best goalkeeper in the league,” Clarkson said. “She’s had a couple of rough moments in the competition. But I said to her when she’s had those moments that she’s going to win us more things than lose us, and we’ve got complete faith in her.”

If Rachel Daly can take her made penalty and recapture the same confidence she displayed in the tournament opener — and the same confidence Campbell showed before, during and after the shootout — Portland’s defense once again will be on the back foot. While Britt Eckerstrom showed that she is more than capable of withstanding a barrage, it’s fair to say that she would prefer her defense make life a bit easier next time.

To Portland’s credit, they forced North Carolina into taking multiple shots from distance. Kelli Hubly and Meghan Klingenberg continue to anchor the backline while Lindsey Horan does seemingly everything, from the most shots on frame to the second most tackles won. Crucially, however, both Horna and Klingenberg are listed as questionable on the injury report for their clash with Houston.

Portland was able to take down the tournament favorites without Horan for much of the second half, vanquishing the foe they built their team to beat. The team now has its usual swagger, after looking lost at times during a winless group stage effort. The question still remains, who’s going to step up next?

Last game, playoff Morgan Weaver showed up in a big way. Can she do it again? Does Horan have another wonder goal in store? Can the team’s minutes leader and the world’s all-time international goal scorer Christine Sinclair create more magic? Or does Tyler Lussi, who has more attempts per 90 than any other player on the roster, find the back of the net?

It’s impossible to know ahead of time, but this unpredictability is precisely why I think Portland will ultimately come on top, riding the effort of another as-yet-unsuspected hero.

Prediction: Portland 2, Houston 1

SKY BLUE FC VS. CHICAGO RED STARS, 10:00PM EST

Both teams advanced on penalties. Both teams have scored just twice all tournament. Chicago probably outplayed its last opponent, while Sky Blue probably did not. Regardless, both sides will meet in the semi finals at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Sky Blue’s goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan has been under siege all Cup. She has faced 23 shots, but has conceded just three goals. American Soccer Analysis had her expected goals conceded at 6.59 for the tournament, which means she has performed a full 3.59 goals better than predicted. Both metrics are tops in the league. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Sheridan led Sky Blue to victory in penalties.

Since she was drafted by Sky Blue in 2017, Sheridan has seen the low points in the franchise’s history. Now, the team is on the rise with Sheridan serving as a defensive cornerstone.

For a while, Chicago has known it can rely on its defense. Last season, Chicago kept a clean sheet in eight regular season games, tied for fourth in the league while allowing the fifth most goals. In this tournament, Chicago has conceded three goals with three shutouts. Zoey Goralski’s 10 tackles are the fourth most among all players, while Sarah Gorden’s 11 interceptions rank second.

The biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s is on the offensive end. Last year’s team could be counted on to reliably put the ball in the back of the net, while this year’s has struggled to find its rhythm.

It feels weird to say, but Sky Blue may have the more dynamic attack in this game, or at least be trending in that direction. Both teams have just two goals and nine shots on target, but Sky Blue is putting more of its shots on frame and are getting contributions from a more diverse group of players.

Kealia Watt’s 11 shots are tied for the most of any remaining player in the tournament, but she does not have a goal to show for it. Vanessa DiBernardo’s 18 crosses are third, but none have been an assist. Yuki Nagasato, Tierna Davidson and Morgan Gautrat will all miss the game with injuries. As always, Julie Ertz will fill in with a ridiculous looking heatmap. But for Chicago to return to a championship game, there will need to be a higher gear.

On Wednesday, I’m predicting the Red Stars offense will click, even if it’s only for a short burst.

Score: Chicago 1, Sky Blue 0 


 

LOOKING TO 2021

North Carolina is obviously an immensely talented team, and they leave the tournament as the only squad with a goal differential above 0 (+5) or an average of over 1 goal per game (1.4). Lynn Williams further cemented her reputation as a world class striker, and at the current rate, she may still win the Golden Ball with three goals. Debinha often looked like the most dangerous player in the Cup.

This is a team with both a bright past and a bright future. In retrospect, plenty of people will criticize Paul Riley not rotating his midfield, but this seems unfair. Many applauded Riley for playing his best XI against Sky Blue in what was a meaningless final game of the preliminary round, and for good reason. The franchise is programmed from top to bottom to never let up. The midfield was not the problem.

After the game, Riley compared this loss to the 2017 finals. If the comparison is apt, the rest of the league better watch out: after losing to Portland in the 2017 championship, North Carolina went on to win the next two. Expect the Courage to be on a similar mission with the next season rolls around.

Utah Royals

Not only fantastic hosts for the tournament, Utah was also one of the most fun teams to watch in the Challenge Cup. It started with Amy Rodriguez up top, and it will be sad to not get to see more of her this tournament. Another player who defied age, Vero Boquete, exits the tournament as the only player with two assists.

The adjustment to a 3-5-2 was always going to be a challenge, but now Utah can regroup with another year to practice as head coach Craig Harrington seems wedded to the formation. Over the last four games, Utah scored once and conceded twice, so the offense the formation is intended to generate never manifested, but neither did the defensive holes.

Utah also got contributions from all over its roster. Of the 22 players to appear in a game, 21 got the opportunity to start once. The only player not to start was Tziarra King, who appeared in four games and scored a goal. Of the 73 players in the Cup with at least two shots, 12 played for Utah, tied with OL Reign for the most of any club.

“I saw a lot of team growth and you could see it,” Rodriguez said. “We used a lot of players and we have a lot of talent on this team and in such a short span of time to try and get everything to click together I thought we did what we could.”

OL Reign

Although the Reign never put all of the pieces together offensively, there was a lot to like. While most first time coaches in the NWSL struggle for a whole year, Farsi Benstiti can now take an extended offseason to digest the lessons of his first five games at the helm.

Despite the coaching change, the Reign once again seemed to overperform. Last year, the side made the playoffs as the fourth seed with a 0 goal differential, and this year was the third seed in the knockout round despite sitting on a -1 goal differential.

Seeing Jessica Fishlock in the starting lineup for the first time since tearing her ACL in a game last July was one of the biggest positives of the tournament. Another was seeing Bethany Balcer, the reigning Rookie of the Year, coolly bury her penalty kick after previously discussing her panic attack in the prior game.

“Basing a game off of PKs is not ideal,” Sofia Huerta said after the game, and what was surely a common sentiment among the players of all three teams who kept a clean sheet yet still lost. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

Expect the club to enter 2021 with a renewed vigor as Megan Rapinoe rejoins the squad and Benstiti further acclimates.

Washington Spirit

The youngest team in the tournament will get another year to regroup. Without Andi Sullivan, and with both Rose Lavelle and Jordan DiBiasi nursing injuries, the midfield was listless against Sky Blue. Like North Carolina the day before, the Spirit grew impatient, and without their usual playmakers, the possession-based system broke down.

In the last few seasons, Washington has completely rebuilt its roster from the back line forward. All of the draft picks still with the team from the 2018 and 2019 drafts are either defenders or midfielders: Andi Sullivan, Bayley Feist, Dorian Bailey and Jordan DiBiasi in the midfield. Sam Staab and Tegan McGrady on the back line. (All were taken in the first round except Feist, who was a 2019 second round pick.)

Since then, Washington has looked for its long term solution at striker, whether it’s a replacement or a partner for Ashley Hatch. Washington used its first three picks of the 2020 on forwards before taking Kaiya McCulough, a defender who did not appear in the Challenge Cup. Those three were Ashley Sanchez, Averie Collins and Katie McClure, all of whom had their moments, but will need to grow in the offseason. If Washington can put together that last piece of the puzzle, and if Sullivan and her linemates can come back fully healthy, the Spirit should enter 2021 as serious contenders.