NWSL Challenge Cup: Players to watch in 2022

Trinity Rodman of the Washington Spirit dribbles between opponents.
Trinity Rodman of the Washington Spirit dribbles between Sarah Woldmoe and Tatumn Milazzo of the Chicago Red Stars during the 2021 NWSL Championship. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

With the third iteration of the NWSL Challenge Cup just around the corner, here are some players to keep an eye on this year. From seasoned USWNT vets to young upstarts looking to break through, we have it all.

Trinity Rodman – Washington Spirit

Where better to start than in Washington with the reigning NWSL champions. Portland went all the way in the last NWSL Challenge Cup whilst the Spirit came sixth, but the league proved very different.

One of the key cogs in Washington’s success was, of course, Trinity Rodman. Rodman may just be 19 years old, but she has had a whirlwind of a career already. She was the NWSL Rookie of the Year in 2021, she scored in the playoff semi-finals as they edged out Megan Rapinoe and OL Reign plus she has just signed a new contract making her the richest paid player in league history. Ashley Hatch led the Spirit in goals last year, but Rodman is going from strength to strength and will continue to do exactly that.

Sophia Smith – Portland Thorns

Now to the defending NWSL Challenge Cup champions and the situation in Portland is an enthralling one. There are the obvious off-the-field issues still looming over the team but we are veering away from that in this article. USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan has moved to France which will now lead to youth becoming all the more important for the Thorns. Striker Morgan Weaver and 16-year-old Olivia Moultrie are both worth a mention. That being said, Sophia Smith is under the microscope. She is just 21 and has 6 goals in her 16 Thorns appearances. The squad has a nice blend of youth and experience with Smith and the legend that is Christine Sinclair being a prime example of this.

Ebony Salmon – Racing Louisville

From one young forward to another and Ebony Salmon’s impact in Louisville was nigh on instant. The England international is 21 years old, and she was the shining star in a very poor Bristol City team in the last WSL season. Her form in front of goal and in the face of adversity earned her a move to the NWSL as her former side dropped down to the Championship. The striker duo of Salmon and Dane Nadia Nadim is a fascinating one for Racing Louisville, both, of course, being fairly new plus the latter has been sidelined for a while with an ACL tear. Salmon has just the one Lionesses appearance to her name with many more to follow and she could go to another level later this month.

Debinha – North Carolina Courage

Moving to someone at the other end of their career over in North Carolina. A number of iconic Brazilians have blessed the NWSL whether it be Marta or Formiga. Another Brazilian player whose talent can be seen in the NWSL, is current national team forward Debinha who has been with the Courage since 2017 now. She has over 100 appearances for North Carolina and 116 Brazil caps too, winning titles with the both of them too. Fellow countrywoman Kerolin also plays for the team and it will be intriguing to see how she can help a player eight years her junior develop.

Abi Kim – Orlando Pride

Talking of young strikers being influenced by those around them, with Marta and Sydney Leroux around her, Abi Kim is in the best company. The Liberian-born American was on the outskirts of the Orlando Pride side last season, mainly due to the aforementioned duo. That being said, a competition such as the NWSL Challenge Cup could be the perfect opportunity for Kim to springboard herself into the mainstream.

Rose Lavelle – OL Reign

Going from South East all the way to North West and Seattle-based OL Reign have a number of star names. Gold medallist Quinn, 2021 NWSL MVP Jess Fishlock, and 2019 Ballon d’Or winner Megan Rapinoe all fit this mould and then some. Rose Lavelle is the player we are focussing on. And whilst she wasn’t a regular during her time with Manchester City, her USWNT accolades and performances speak for themselves. At the 2019 World Cup, Lavelle was the best player in my opinion – her driving runs from midfield and the technique in that left foot blowing away all opposition. Lavelle could play a key role if OL Reign are to return to winning ways.

Abby Dahlkemper – San Diego Wave

A USWNT teammate of Lavelle is Abby Dahlkemper. She is one of the faces of new side San Diego Wave. With Jill Ellis and Casey Stoney propping up the club, they have a sensational foundation to get them started and it will be so interesting to see how they approach the NWSL Challenge Cup. Dahlkemper went to the blue half of Manchester alongside Rose and Sam Mewis. And, she was, of course, a part of the World Cup winning team under Jill Ellis. An experienced head and a strong spine in a new expansion side is the key to success, as has been shown in both the NWSL and MLS too.

Simone Charley – Angel City

San Diego Wave of course aren’t the only team making their NWSL Challenge Cup debut this month. Interestingly the pair are both out of California, with Angel City being the other. Famous actress Natalie Portman is one of the founders which is perhaps signs of things to come regarding the team and the league in general. USWNT star Christen Press who went to the red half of Manchester may be the elite name for Angel City. Prior to her injury, Sarah Gorden was definitely one of my players to watch but she is now absent, bringing Simone Charley to the fore. Seeing how the Boston native will link up with Press is an intriguing proposition. She netted five times for the Thorns in her 25 appearances.

Gina Lewandowski – Gotham FC

Finally to Gotham FC, previously known as Sky Blue FC. The rebranding was a hugely fascinating one and their current squad is exactly that too. A number of USWNT stars are in their ranks, from Allie Long to Midge Purce, Paige Monaghan to Kristie Mewis. Despite her surname being synonymous with Polish football, Gina Lewandowski is also an American international. The experienced defender enjoyed great success in Germany with Bayern and Frankfurt and she is now a key weapon in the Gotham armoury in her twilight years.

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