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NWSL Challenge Cup: What We’ve Learned so Far


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.