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NWSL Challenge Cup predictions: Teams trending up and down

Gotham FC takes on the Chicago Red Stars in the first NWSL quarterfinal game on Sunday. (Jesse Louie/Just Women’s Sports)

For the first time since the NWSL Championship on Nov. 20, NWSL games are back. The third annual Challenge Cup kicks off Friday with a pair of evening matches between Racing Louisville FC and Kansas City Current, followed by OL Reign and defending tournament champions Portland Thorns FC.

Adding two expansion clubs this offseason resulted in numerous trades, an expansion draft and more college players. Other than the Washington Spirit, the 2021 regular season champions, almost every team has a new look this year.

All eyes will be on new commissioner Jessica Berman when she takes office midway through the tournament on April 20. The former NHL executive has promised to build a strong relationship with the NWSL Players Association and earn the players’ trust after multiple coaches were fired last year amid accusations of abuse.

Most teams share the mindset that the Challenge Cup is an opportunity to evaluate the roster and smooth out tactics before the regular season begins. At the same time, they all want to win the championship on May 7. To get there, they need to finish as the top team in their division, or the top overall second-place team, to earn a ticket to the semifinals on May 4.

Divisions and predictions

This year, the clubs are split into three groups: West (OL Reign, Portland Thorns FC, Angel City FC and San Diego FC), Central (Houston Dash, Racing Louisville FC, Kansas City Current and Chicago Red Stars) and East (NJ/NY Gotham FC, Washington Spirit, North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride).

Based on the 2021 regular season standings (below) and our understanding of how teams have gelled through the preseason, we look at which squads are trending up, trending down or staying the same and offer up some predictions.

  1. Portland Thorns FC (13-6-5)
  2. OL Reign (13-8-3)
  3. Washington Spirit (11-7-6)
  4. Chicago Red Stars (11-8-5)
  5. NJ/NY Gotham FC (8-5-11)
  6. North Carolina Courage (9-9-6)
  7. Houston Dash (9-10-5)
  8. Orlando Pride (7-10-7)
  9. Racing Louisville FC (5-12-7)
  10. Kansas City Current (3-14-7)

West Division

Trending up: Reign

Led by 2021 Coach of the Year Laura Harvey, the Reign have always been a team of balance, with experience and skill at every position. The team will run through defenders Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta, who have recently had breakout performances with the U.S. women’s national team, midfielder and 2021 league MVP Jess Fishlock and forward Bethany Balcer, who can score goals with her head and both feet. A championship title has been a long time coming for this team. They’ll be hungry for it.

The same: Portland

The Thorns’ personnel hasn’t changed enough for them to fall too far from the top of the standings. Under new coach Rhian Wilkinson, they’re trying a new formation, and considering they concluded their three-game preseason tournament without surrendering a goal, it seems to be working.

Expansion teams: Angel City, San Diego

Angel City and San Diego will come in eager to prove themselves as expansion clubs. Taking advantage of offseason trades versus high college draft picks, Angel City has an experienced, balanced lineup that will give established NWSL teams like Portland and Reign tough competition. In what is sure to become a California rivalry, Angel City and the Wave will meet in their first-ever game game Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

West winner: Reign

Central Division

Trending up: Louisville, Kansas City

The Current’s new core of rookie defenders, who helped the team to 6-0 and 0-0 preseason shutouts of Washington and Orlando, respectively, are promising for the club’s future. Kansas City finished last season with 36 goals against, the second most in the league. They’ve since acquired a group of stars from the two-time NWSL champion North Carolina Courage — Sam Mewis, Kristen Hamilton, Hailie Mace and Lynn Williams, who’s second all-time in NWSL goals.

Racing Louisville will be an underrated team this tournament, but defender and 2021 No. 1 overall pick Emily Fox and star forward CeCe Kizer could lead them into contention sooner than expected. The club’s additions of World Cup champion Jess McDonald and 2022 No. 2 overall pick Jaelin Howell will only help.

Trending down: Chicago

The Central division will be the most balanced and, therefore, the most unpredictable. Last year, Houston, Louisville and Kansas City had less-than-ideal seasons, while Chicago made the league final. After losing Sarah Gorden to Angel City and Katie Johnson to San Diego, the Red Stars, under new coach Chris Petrucelli, will likely have adjustments to make during this Challenge Cup.

The same: Houston

After finishing 2021 in seventh place, the Dash lost star midfielder Kristie Mewis in the expansion draft, but acquired Mexican national player Maria Sánchez, who should make an immediate impact.

Division winner: Kansas City

East Division

Trending up: Gotham

As most teams trend up or down by at least a smidge every year, Gotham FC has catapulted right to the top. Offseason acquisitions Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, Kristie Mewis and Kumi Yokohama solidify a lineup that made it to a shootout with the Thorns in last year’s Challenge Cup final.

Trending down: Orlando, North Carolina

The Pride and Courage are in rebuilding mode after losing multiple stars during the offseason. The Courage traded away Sam Mewis, McDonald and Williams, and Amy Rodriguez retired. They picked up five rookies in the 2022 draft and signed them all at the beginning of preseason. Orlando lost U.S. national team players Krieger, Harris and Alex Morgan, as well as New Zealand international Ali Riley. Both teams will be figuring it out as they go.

The same: Washington

The 2021 league champions are clearly content with their title-winning roster, having not made any significant moves in the offseason. Tegan McGrady (traded to San Diego) and Paige Nielsen (traded to Angel City) filled important fullback roles for Washington last season, but they also shared that spot with Julia Roddar, who’s still around.

East winner: Gotham FC

Top overall second place: Angel City

The fourth semifinal spot should belong to the West, considering the level of competitiveness expected from that division. Angel City’s roster is talented enough to make the cut, even in the club’s first season on the field.

Challenge Cup champion: Gotham FC

Catapulting to the top means the very top.

How to watch

Most NWSL Challenge Cup matches will be streamed on Paramount+ in the U.S. and internationally on Twitch.

Games on CBS (also on Paramount+; all times ET)

  • April 2: San Diego Wave FC vs. Angel City FC at 4 p.m.
  • April 23: North Carolina Courage vs. Washington Spirit at 1 p.m.
  • May 7: Championship game at 1 p.m.

Games on CBS Sports Network

  • April 15: Kansas City Current vs. Houston Dash at 8 p.m.
  • April 17: OL Reign vs. Angel City FC at 6 p.m.
  • April 24: Houston Dash vs. Racing Louisville FC at 6 p.m.
  • May 4: Semifinals at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

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

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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