The NWSL Challenge Cup concluded with Houston Dash hoisting their first piece of silverware. Yet, following the month-long competition, there were several takeaways for fans of each team to digest.
All eyes were on the Challenge Cup at the start. Its self-contained, World Cup-style format was a curious substitute for regular league play.
Being the first major American sports league to return to action following the coronavirus pandemic made it all the more intriguing.
Chicago Red Stars
Coming off a solid run to the 2019 NWSL Championship, Chicago were looking to sustain that success.
The Red Stars racked up a 1-1-2 record during the group stage, indicating a not-so-great start to the tournament. Yet, there were several glimpses of a team approaching top form.
Once in the knockout round, Chicago were able to grind out two wins to make it to the final. First they defeated OL Reign in a penalty shoot-out and powered through to hang on against Sky Blue.
Through these performances, Chicago proved the naysayers wrong. While they were once again unable to make their mark in the championship game, head coach Rory Dames’ side showed that 2019 wasn’t just a fluke season.
During the tournament, three stand out performers were Bianca St. Georges, Sarah Gorden, and Savannah McCaskill. TK
There’s not a whole lot to say about the Houston Dash that hasn’t already been said. They are winners, pure and simple.
They went from never qualifying for the NWSL playoffs to winning the Challenge Cup.
From the first game of the group stage, the Dash displayed an explosiveness on the field. The team was collectively eager to dominate against Utah. While the hosts struck back to secure a draw for themselves, Houston caught the attention of fans.Embed from Getty Images
A dip in results occurred during the second half of the group stage. Regardless, Houston pushed on through to the knockouts. Here, they avenged themselves against Utah and chopped down Portland.
James Clarkson’s side built momentum when it was most necessary. This all-around form was a testament to the team’s leadership and determination. Thanks to co-captains Rachel Daly and Jane Campbell, Houston showed no intimidation. TK
North Carolina Courage
NC Courage came into this tournament as the favoured team to win it all. They set the league standard after winning the NWSL Championship in back-to-back seasons.
In the preliminary rounds, they stood at the top of the table with 12 points. However, the NWSL juggernauts fell to the Portland Thorns 1-0 later on, ending their competitive run.
One of the team’s downfalls was their finishing ability. There was a handful of times where they couldn’t get the job done in the final third. This would come to haunt them in the quarter-final match against Portland.
While the Courage’s run in the Cup ended shorter than expected, it’s still important to note some of the team’s standout players.Embed from Getty Images
Lynn Williams proved to be one of the Cup’s top scorers. International players Abby Erceg and Denise O’Sullivan also had solid performances.
NC also had some new faces who contributed to their initial success. These included defenders Hailie Mace and Addisyn Merrick. Mace made her debut one to remember as she had an assist within moments of coming onto the pitch. KC
This team had a ‘makeover’ in terms of a new name, new coach and a new logo.
The only missing link that Farid Benstiti had to manoeuvre was filling Megan Rapinoe’s spot on the wing.
After acclimatising in Montana for the Utah elevation, Reign looked prepared as ever. That preparation translated into a third-place group stage finish.
The quarter-finals did not go as they had planned. While holding Chicago Red Stars to a draw in regulation, they quickly had to refocus. Unfortunately, Reign lost 3-4 on penalties and were eliminated from the Challenge Cup.
Standout performances included the return of Jess Fishlock, 2019 Rookie and Player of the year Bethany Balcer, the surprise loan from PSG Alana Cook and recent international signee Yuka Nicole Momiki. KC
The Portland Thorns, a name that does not need an introduction.
After securing new signings in the transfer window and college draft, the Thorns were ready to get the ball rolling. However, the odds were not in their favour as they finished last in the preliminary round standings, with a 0-3-1 record.
It was a bumpy ride for all parties involved. Eventually, the Thorns found themselves facing league giants North Carolina Courage in the quarter-finals.
With everything on the line, the Thorns rose to the occasion and forced the favoured team to fall.Embed from Getty Images
In the match that would make the difference, Britt Eckerstrom was a brick wall. She disallowed so many brilliant shots from the likes of Debinha and Williams.
Another player to forge her mark was debutant Morgan Weaver. She scored her first career NWSL goal and knocked off top-seeded NC Courage all in one move.
Other players who were integral for the Thorns were Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi and Rocky Rodriguez. They were crucial in providing the attacking flair needed to carry Portland into the semi-finals. KC