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NWSL Challenge Cup: Quarterfinals Preview

BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS

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.


 

7/17: PORTLAND THORNS V NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE

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


 

7/17 HOUSTON DASH V UTAH ROYALS FC

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


 

7/18: WASHINGTON SPIRIT V SKY BLUE FC

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


 

7/18: OL REIGN V CHICAGO RED STARS

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

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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