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NWSL Challenge Cup: Quarterfinals Preview


After an electric opening round, all eight teams in Utah have been seeded.

The quarterfinals feature a rematch of the tournament’s opening game between Portland and North Carolina, a sequel to the six-goal affair between Houston and Utah, an intriguing battle between two teams on the rise in Washington and Sky Blue, and a meeting between two 2019 playoff teams with the Chicago Red Stars taking on OL Reign.

While no team has been at its best for all 360 minutes of the tournament so far, we have a good idea of what each team needs to do to advance to the semi-final round.



Right now, Portland needs its young players to step up. In my Challenge Cup preview, I said that No. 1 draft pick Sophia Smith was the player to watch, despite a lingering injury. Turns out, that injury has inhibited Smith more than was predicted. Naturally, Portland has turned to its second overall draft pick, Morgan Weaver.

Weaver has been excellent getting into attacking spaces, but she still needs to improve on her finishing. The forward who scored fifteen goals during her senior year at Washington State has yet to fully emerge.

Portland knows what to expect from North Carolina, who have shown little desire to deviate from their tried and true game plan. The Courage are relentless. They don’t need any help beating you, but opponents so far have been doing as much, as North Carolina has scored many cheap goals off turnovers. The best thing for the Thorns is to do the little things right, starting with clean possession in their defensive third. Otherwise, North Carolina won’t even have to play up to its standard in order to win.

Simone Charley is the only player on any team to have scored on the Courage in this Cup. If nothing else, that should give Portland the spark of confidence it needs.

As of right now, the Courage’s best chance to win is to just keep doing this:

North Carolina is so good at just sucking the life out of teams. While Portland wants to believe they belong on the big stage, if the Courage are able to score an early goal as they did against Sky Blue, the Thorns may break.

Prediction: North Carolina 3, Portland 1



Houston’s defense, while improved, is not going to win games. Shea Groom, Kristie Mewis and Rachel Daly will need to regain their composure and connection from their first two games. In a split second, the Dash can score against the run of play, but the past two games have not displayed that explosive burst.

Still, Houston has shown some of the best passing in the Cup. Against a Royals back three of Rachel Corsie, Elizabeth Ball and a rotating third member, Houston has already shown it can wreak havoc, as it did in running out to a 3-1 lead in their first game. The most straightforward path to the semifinals for the Dash is to continue to place balls behind that back line.

Even if Houston’s defense can’t lead the team to victory, the back line will need to focus on organization especially given the breakdowns against Utah the last time out. To give the team a chance, Houston has to match the pace and predict the creativity of Amy Rodriguez.

When the Dash are at their best, they are pressing the other side. This asks a lot of the players physically, so hopefully these days of rest in between rounds will allow Houston to be at its best come Friday.

Although Utah’s first priority will be containing Rachel Daly, the second has to be maintaining composure in the closing and opening minutes of each half.

Daly scored in stoppage time of the first half in the team’s first meeting, turning what was a solid Utah performance in the first 45 minutes into a wash. That negative momentum carried over into the second half, and the Royals conceded a second goal to Daly less than two minutes after kickoff.

In their loss to OL Reign, Bethany Balcer scored a minute into second half stoppage time to steal a win and three points. Finally, against Chicago, Casey Short scored in the 85th minute.

In Houston’s past two games, we have seen Daly frustrated frequently when she is denied entry passes. With its overloaded midfield, Utah can prevent Kristie Mewis and Shea Groom from seeing the ball and force any pass to Daly to have to come over the top. If Utah successfully rebuffs the Houston link-up play, and does so for the full 90 minutes (including stoppage time), then the Royals may survive for a shot at the win.

Prediction: Houston Dash 2, Utah Royals 2, Houston advances on PKs



Washington’s last game against Houston was their blueprint for success. While the Spirit held possession against North Carolina, it was not meaningful; against the Dash, they were able to consistently generate incisive, productive runs. Almost half of the team’s 40 shots, 19, have been on target, which is the best rate in the Cup.

Washington does not have a central target to win aerial battles on crosses. Ashley Hatch’s speed and Ashley Sanchez’s ball handling are better suited for a counterattack or methodical build up. Since the decision has been made to emphasize possession, the Spirit must double down on their build up play.

Health in the midfield is crucial, as there is no doubt a middle three of Rose Lavelle, Andi Sullivan and Jordan DiBiasi is Richie Burke’s preferred option. But Sullivan is out for the rest of the cup with a meniscus tear, and both Lavelle (ankle) and DiBiasi (hip) were held out of last Sundays’ game. The health and stamina of the latter two will be something to keep an eye on as the tournament advances.

In the second half against Houston, Washington sat back in their defensive block in a 5-4-1 formation, and the Dash grew into the game. While it may have made sense to experiment while up a goal, the Spirit appeared tentative. Against a Sky Blue side without many bonafide stars, Washington should look to dictate play as the aggressor.

Coming into the tournament, it would not have been a shock to hear that Sky Blue finished seventh in the preliminary round. After four games, however, it is clear that there is a lot to like about this team. Not only are they actually tied with three other teams on four points, but they have consistently put together some impressive runs of soccer.

So much of what Washington does right now runs through their midfield. To that end, a key to Sky Blue’s success will be to control the center of the pitch. Jennifer Cudjoe has been a revelation in the midfield, and the leadership of McCall Zerboni cannot be overstated. No matter who the Spirit have available, Sky Blue must look to assert itself.

Coach Freya Coombe has put together some well-conceived tactical plans in this Cup. The game tape from Spirit vs. Dash will be useful to show what Washington is capable of when not under pressure. On the other side, the game tape from the Spirit’s loss to the Courage will extol the benefits of setting a high line of confrontation.

Prediction: Washington Spirit 2, Sky Blue 1



Only one team has scored on OL Reign so far in this Cup, so it’s not exactly breaking news that the path to victory runs through their defense. Nevertheless, over the course of the Cup, there has been significant improvement. Since an opening draw against Sky Blue in which the side looked more or less lost, OL Reign has increasingly shifted from sitting back and relying on a “bend but don’t break” strategy to playing more aggressively and attacking backlines.

Although the team has just one goal, its 45 shots is fourth in the league. Conventional wisdom says that eventually some will begin to find the back of the net. (On the flip side, only 12 of those shots have come on target, and they’ll be facing Alyssa Naeher between the posts. Goals against Chicago could be hard to come by.)

So far, the Reign have played a physical style with the fourth most interceptions, third most tackles won, and the most fouls committed. What’s missing is the ability to finish on offense. Against a Julie Ertz-led defense, crosses like the one Balcer scored against Utah will be knocked away. However, if the Reign can use Chicago’s defensive aggression against them to catch them in an advanced position with room in behind, there might be opportunities to get one-on-one with Naeher.

The good news for the Red Stars is that despite scoring just twice through the first four games, that’s still twice as many goals as OL Reign. Tinkering with his lineup throughout the preliminary round, coach Rory Dames has shifted the emphasis from winning games to learning. Time will tell if this was the right approach. Against Utah, Chiacgo had to kick it into a different gear in order to score a late goal and avoid a quarterfinals matchup against North Carolina.

Now, the Red Stars will have to bring that sense of urgency from the opening whistle, as it’s win or go home.

Everyone, from the players to the coaches to the fans to the media, is tired of addressing what Chicago is missing this year compared to last, when a Sam Kerr-led offense led the Red Stars to the cusp of a title. But until Chicago can resume scoring goals at will, the story won’t go away. Against OL Reign, the Red Stars will have a chance to show they have yet to play their best.

Prediction: Chicago Red Stars 1, OL Reign 0