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NWSL Challenge Cup Championship Preview: Houston Dash vs Chicago Red Stars

HERRIMAN, UT – JULY 17: Rachel Daly #3 of Houston Dash shoots the ball during a game between Utah Royals FC and Houston Dash at Zions Bank Stadium on July 17, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. (Photo by Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Even without the roar of the crowd, the Challenge Cup has reached its peak. On Sunday, sixth-seed Chicago meets fourth-seed Houston in Rio Tinto Stadium to conclude a month of chaos.

Both Chicago and Houston have been held scoreless three times. Both sides have also scored three goals in a game. Entering the semifinal, both teams had a -1 goal differential.

With the tale of the tape so similar, the final may come down to intangibles. After a grueling schedule, nothing may be more important than endurance. As of Sunday, Chicago will have played its seven games in 29 days compared to Houston’s 26. If the Red Stars benefit from a few extra days, then Houston benefits from an extra 9.5 hours of rest between the semifinal and the final.

Chicago was built for this tournament. In early matches, Rory Dames rotated his starting squad, getting valuable looks at players for the future and preserving legs. Last game made clear that the Red Stars do not need the ball to win. They would prefer to get running.

At the same time, despite the rotation, Chicago looked incredibly tired last game. Sky Blue’s second goal came because Katie Johnson did not press the backline, allowing Midge Purce to streak down the right side unimpeded. Johnson had a great game, but up two goals for the majority of the game and chasing the ball, she faded as the game wore on. Roughly a half hour later, Johnson was laying on the grass, exhausted. But she and the Red Stars did just enough to secure a spot in the championship game.

Houston is on the rise. They have channeled years of underappreciation into a cohesive message. They have played themselves into their first championship game. Not only are they creating plenty of opportunities, including 14 shots and four on frame in the semifinal, but they have found an emotional leader in Rachel Daly.

Chicago is where they are expected to be. While nothing is guaranteed in a tournament format, a fact that the North Carolina Courage proved, the Red Stars find themselves where they were a year ago — in a championship game.

Chicago has also lost many more players to injury. While Houston only lists Megan Oyster as questionable, Chicago has six players listed as out, including Morgan Gautrat, Yuki Nagasato and Tierna Davidson, and two more are questionable. The status of Casey Short is presently unknown.

In terms of play, Houston rises and falls with Kristie Mewis and Shea Groom. The midfield sets up everything that James Clarkson wants his side to accomplish. Katie Naughton and, when healthy, Megan Oyster have anchored the backline. The center back pairing each have a pass completion percentage greater than 78%.

For Chicago, Sarah Gorden has had an excellent Cup, exemplified by her 82.4% pass completion, the highest on her squad for any player with over 100 minutes. Julie Ertz has maintained and even raised her level of excellence; she truly dictates play from wherever she is on the pitch. Seven games without a front post header seems too long and the own goal will only feed her fire.

Sky Blue’s comeback is worth mentioning because as dominant as Chicago looked for the first hour of their semifinal collision, Sky Blue never quit. While the team from New Jersey was a sneaky pick in this tournament, they were very much an underdog against Chicago. It would have been easy for Sky Blue to be happy making it to the semifinal round, but even behind three goals, there was never resignation.

The two early goals obviously shocked Freya Coombe’s squad, but the veteran on-field leadership of McCall Zerboni re-assembled the team in a crucial huddle. The team did not concede for the rest of the half, and even when Chicago found a third goal with Sky Blue pressing for one of their own, New Jersey continued to believe.

It was no accident that getting Evelyne Viens and Imani Dorsey on the pitch precipitated the two goals. Most directly, Viens started the scoring with a flick header goal over the outstretched arms of Naeher, assisted of course by Zerboni. Less obviously, Dorsey’s presence on the left of the defense allowed Purce to push higher for that second goal.

While Portland made the most of their one true chance against North Carolina, they did not even find one against Houston. The Thorns, without a whole host of players, but most significantly with no Lindsey Horan, did not put a shot on goal.

Since allowing three goals in the opener, Houston’s defense has made tremendous strides. Its offense has risen and fallen, but seems to be peaking. The same can be said for the Red Stars. In its most recent game, Chicago scored more goals than the rest of the tournament combined.

Predicting the outcome of the final is a fool’s errand. Chicago has the experience in pressure moments, but Houston has not hid from the bright lights so far. The Dash prey on defensive lapses for goals, which are rarities for an Ertz-led defense, but not nonexistent.

In the end, I think Houston just wants it a little more. And given the mental and physical fatigue that has accumulated after a month in the bubble, that could prove to be the difference.

Prediction: Houston 2, Chicago 1

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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