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Five new players to watch as the NWSL Challenge Cup resumes

Racing Louisville's Alex Chidiac won a championship with her Australian club last month. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

The NWSL Challenge Cup resumes on Thursday after an international break that lasted a week and a half.

Kicking off with OL Reign versus San Diego Wave FC on Thursday night, the tournament will continue to serve as an opportunity for coaches to evaluate their rosters in game action before the regular season begins April 29. About two thirds of the way through their Challenge Cup schedules, teams are still signing and rotating in new players.

In that spirit, we look at five of the NWSL’s most notable additions who recently made, or will soon make, their league debuts.

Kerolin Nicoli, F, North Carolina Courage

Nicoli officially joined the Courage at the beginning of the month, arriving from Brazil for an away game against NY/NJ Gotham FC on April 3. Subbing into the game in the second half for her NWSL debut, she showcased her creativity, comfort on the ball and ability to draw opponents in and create spaces. Her most dangerous play came in the 80th minute, when she received a through ball from Brazilian teammate Debinha and took on three Gotham defenders before hitting the top left post with her shot.

“Really, really happy with her, and she’s obviously only going to get better,” Courage head coach Sean Nahas said.

Despite a 1-1 draw with Gotham, North Carolina remains undefeated and at the top of the East Division standings with a 2-0-2 record.

Before signing with North Carolina on Jan. 10, Kerolin played two seasons with Madrid Club de Fútbol Femenin of the Spanish Primera División, scoring five goals in 24 appearances and logging 1,588 minutes of playing time.

Amirah Ali, F, San Diego Wave FC

Ali scored her first professional goal in her NWSL debut on April 2 after subbing on in the 68th minute. In an impressive individual effort, she dribbled through Angel City FC’s half, beating center back Vanessa Gilles into the box and placing the ball in the bottom right corner.

The 4-2 win was the Wave’s first in franchise history, lifting them to third place in the West Division standings, ahead of Angel City. 

San Diego head coach Casey Stoney wasn’t surprised at all by Ali’s standout debut.

“If we can get her fit, she can light this league up,” said Stoney, who’s been impressed with Ali’s intelligence.

Ali is coming off of her senior year at Rutgers University, where she was a MAC Hermann Trophy candidate as well as a member of the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Region First Team.

Amanda Kowalski, D, Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars signed Kowalski after center back Tierna Davidson went down with a season-ending torn ACL last month. The defender made her first start in a 2-0 shutout of the Houston Dash on April 2, and two days later, the club announced it had signed her to a three-year contract with a fourth-year option. Playing all 90 minutes for her hometown club, she recorded two key blocked shots and completed 80 percent of her passes, making her one of the Red Stars’ top facilitators of the game with 44 completed passes.

With the clean-sheet victory, Chicago rose to the top of the Central Division standings, tied with the Kansas City Current at 2-1-1.

Before joining the Red Stars this preseason as a non-roster invitee, Kowalski played in 72 matches at Butler University, scoring four goals and recording 11 assists.

Alex Chidiac, M, Racing Louisville FC

Though just 23 years old, Chidiac has been a star for a while. The midfielder received her first senior national team call-up with Australia at the age of 16, and at 15 she made her debut with Adelaide United FC in the A-League.

Most recently, she was named Melbourne Victory’s best player in 2021 after helping the club win last month’s Aussie Grand Final. On loan from WE League’s JEF United Chiba, she scored one goal and added two assists in 14 starts for Melbourne.

The Sydney native, who signed with Racing Louisville earlier this month, is known to be strong on the ball and to play with a lot of energy.

“I think Alex and Racing will be a perfect match,” Louisville head coach Kim Björkegren said.

Jimena López, D, OL Reign

López had a standout first start with the OL Reign in a 1-0 win over the Portland Thorns on April 2, making some key tackles on the wing. A member of the Mexican national team, the fullback joins U.S. women’s national team defenders Sofia Huerta and Alana Cook — as well as Lu Barnes and Sam Hiatt — to form one of the strongest backlines in the league.

López was selected 28th overall in the 2021 NWSL Draft by the Reign before signing with Eibar in the Spanish Primera División the same month. In Spain, the 23-year-old started and played in 16 matches, scoring one goal across 1,361 minutes of play.

Before going pro, López starred at Texas A&M. With 17 goals and 23 assists in her NCAA career, she was named 2019 SEC Midfielder of the Year and 2020 Co-Defender of the Year, and she was a two-time All-SEC First Team selection.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.