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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