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NWSL Challenge Cup: What We’ve Learned so Far

BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS

After six games, we have a solid idea of what the tournament will look like, and it could not be more of a treat.

Notwithstanding fake crowd noise, which will always be contentious, the opening days have been a fantastic showing for the league. Beginning with 572,000 viewers on CBS for the opening matchup, the NWSL has basked in its spotlight.

With that spotlight, however, came contention. As the first league back, one of the biggest stories heading into the tournament was how teams would comport themselves during the national anthem. The Cup began on the right track with a unified message in support of Black Lives Matter. As games went on, more of the conversation turned to individual players and the choices they made. The league has since decided it will allow players to remain in the locker room during the national anthem. Needless to say, this will continue to be a story moving forward, as the individual actions continue to be treated as emblematic of a broader, national discussion.

Surprisingly, the rust that was expected for players that have only had limited time to train and few preseason opportunities in game-like situations never seemed to materialize. From the first game, fans have been shown world-class soccer. Every game has been competitive, and never before has the league displayed such widespread, high-level parity.
With a two day respite before games resume, let’s check in and see what we’ve learned from each team so far.


North Carolina Courage: There are wins that are perfect, like when North Carolina beat Portland 6-0 last year in Providence Park. Other wins fall into the category of “gritty not pretty,” which is how you’d have to describe the Courage’s opening match win over Portland in this Cup. Nonetheless, Paul Riley’s team still established itself as that team in their opening victory. This is a team that knows how to win and has all the pieces to do so, and the roommate connection between Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis for the game-winning goal was picture perfect.

North Carolina exhibited its pedigree once again on Wednesday as they took advantage of the Washington Spirit’s mistakes in possession, winning 2-0. Patience and pressure on the backline paid off, and being able to sub in Sam Mewis and Crystal Dunn at halftime is what a coach’s dreams are made of.

Moving ahead, the two-time defending champs are still the team to beat. Williams is an elite scorer, Debinha is involved in every build-up play, the defense is humming, and the midfield consistently asserting itself.

Portland Thorns: With just one point after two games, the Thorns may be disappointed in their showing thus far, but there is little reason to be. Certainly, the loss in stoppage time to North Carolina was heartbreaking. At the same time, it was a sign of good things to come. Bella Bixby had a fantastic debut in goal and was in position to make a stop on the winning score. Adjusting to Becky Sauerbrunn at center back was not immediate, but grew over the course of the game.

Against Chicago, Portland was certainly hoping for a breakthrough goal, but it only became more clear that their direct style of play was not going to work without a finisher up top. In the midfield, Lindsey Horan seems stranded without outlets. Even before she left the game with a bloodied shin, her frustration was showing. Christine Sinclair is alone and is no longer a singular force. For a team with the Thorns’ prestige, learning on the job is frowned upon. In this tournament, however, Portland would be wise to look at Chicago’s model to try out some new lineups, especially offensive pairings, to find the best fit. After all, through their first games they have shown that even with a depleted roster, the squad can still compete.

Washington Spirit: The youngest team in the tournament entered the Challenge Cup with a lot to prove. The broadcast has highlighted it well, but part of the Spirit’s ongoing culture shift has been to approach each game as a must-win. Rose Lavelle has proven she’s the key to any winning strategy, but she is not alone, as many other young players have stepped up. Aubrey Bledsoe has been a beast in the net, making several phenomenal saves, including the Save of the Match against Chicago.

Still, there is considerable room to grow for a side that has upped its level of play considerably. That was on display against North Carolina. The tactical decision to try and out-possess the Courage was the right one, and was even suggested by Haley Kopmeyer on Just Women’s Sports’ IG live with David Copeland Smith of Beast Mode Soccer ahead of the match. Nevertheless, the Spirit’s back line was not playing high enough up the pitch with or without possession, putting unnecessary strain on the midfield. When North Carolina brought in its reinforcements, the Spirit defense crumbled.

Chicago Red Stars: Their outlook on this tournament is perfect. With every team making it to the knockout round, there is little incentive to overexert in the seeding stage. The worst that can happen is an early meeting with one of the league’s top teams, but as the 2019 Runner-Up, Chicago believes it can match up with any team.

The quality of coaching was on full display as the Red Stars worked in an entirely different starting XI in the second game. In their first game, beside the noticeable absence of Tierna Davidson on the backline, Chicago played a solid game against Washington. The team will need to grow into its methodical style of play, but has the talent to do so. The moment between Casey Short and Julie Ertz drew a lot of national attention, and for good reason. Judging by the statement they put out as a pair, it’s clear this team is building deep cohesion through tough, honest, and necessary conversations.

Houston Dash: In case it wasn’t already known, Rachel Daly is legit. Copeland believes she should have had a hat trick against the Royals, and I would tend to agree.

That finishing ability is exactly what Houston needs from its top scorer. The entire complexion of the game changed with a first half stoppage time goal and a goal right out of the second half gates. The reverberations from Shea Groom’s strike are probably now just being felt in Houston.

There is a lot to clean up for the Dash, with the two set piece goals they allowed, one of which being the late-game equalizer. Still, their performance against the Royals both electrified fans and gave the team reasons to be optimistic about the chances of a deep tournament run.

Utah Royals: In the most exciting game of the tournament to this point, depending on your perspective, the Royals played either the hero or the villain. Mostly, the brilliant comeback says a lot about the team’s mentality. Letting a lead slip away with three unanswered goals is crushing, but then coming back with a perfect free kick and rookie Tziarra King scoring her first career goal? Priceless. In recent memory, goals have never been a given for Utah. Seeing them put up a trio of scores had to be a welcome sign for Royals faithful.

Lo’eau LaBonta had the best pass in the tournament so far, putting the entire Houston team out of position to set up Amy Rodriguez’s assist on the first goal. Later, she expertly cleared a ball off the goal line. Utah will not want another singular player beating them again, but facing Rachel Daly and learning from the tape is part of growth.

OL Reign: Their look is definitely different this year, and it’s not just the logo and uniforms. Still, OL Reign’s mentality is defense first. New head coach Farid Benstiti kept his plans for the team close to the vest, then put out a defensive minded starting lineup in their game against Sky Blue FC.

As is often the case in a scoreless game, the back line looked solid, but the Lauren Barnes-led group made plays and even shut down the second half attack. Alana Cook, on loan from PSG, slotted alongside at center back comfortably. As was clear with some late substitutions, there was a lot of attacking flair on the bench. Now, the puzzle becomes how to incorporate that half of the roster. It will take some time, but the pieces are coming together.

Sky Blue FC: Although their game against OL Reign was low on action, it was fun to see the debut of Midge Purce and McCall Zerboni. With the lack of an attack, however, many people will call for Purce to be moved up the pitch into the attack. There are many systems in which a right back can be an extra winger, but Sky Blue is not quite there.

As a team that was not tested much and did not do much probing, there is not much to be learned about Sky Blue from their opening performance. Except to say that whenever Kailen Sheridan was tested in goal, she was more than up to the task.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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