By Becca Rightnour / @BeccaFCWrites
The knockout round of the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, was full of surprises in four games that were played. Due to the withdrawal of the Orlando Pride at the beginning of the tournament, the other eight NWSL Teams automatically made it to the knockout round. The four games that each team played, set them up in ranking, but the knockout games on the 17th and 18th, were where things started to get serious. For these teams, it was the beginning of the do-or-die phase, you either win or you’re out.
NC Courage vs Portland Thorns
The first match of the knockout round saw the number one seed, North Carolina Courage, taking on the number eight seed, Portland Thorns. There was a lot of speculation going into this match that North Carolina who was at the top of the table would easily dispatch Portland, who had been struggling all tournament. However, a goal from Portland’s rookie Morgan Weaver in the 68th minute and a staunch defensive effort from Portland’s keeper Britt Eckerstrom made all the difference. Eckerstrom, who got the start after an injury to starting keeper Bella Bixby in the previous game, played the game of her life. Making eight saves, Eckerstrom was instrumental in locking down the North Carolina Courage’s attacking power by blocking shots from game-changers like Debinha and Lynn Williams. Morgan Weaver’s goal was the first of her NWSL career and was the only goal scored in the four games of the knockout round. Portland’s win secured them a spot in the semi-finals of the NWSL Challenge Cup against the winner of the second knockout game.
Houston Dash vs Utah Royals
The second game of the knockout round saw the fourth-seeded Houston Dash take on the fifth-seeded Utah Royals. This game was a rematch of my favorite game so far in the NWSL Challenge Cup and the one I was most looking forward to. Like many expected, the Houston Dash and the Utah Royals were evenly matched, forcing the game to go to penalty kicks after a chippy ninety-plus minutes. As mentioned in my previous article regarding what players to look out for in the Challenge Cup, both the Dash and the Royals had new captains set on proving themselves. Amy Rodriguez, captain for Utah, was badgering the backline trying to make scoring opportunities to no avail, while the two co-captains for the Dash, Rachely Daly, and Jane Campbell, were likewise trying to keep their team in the game and energize them. Prior to this knockout game, only one NWSL game had ever gone to penalty kicks before, which was the 2016 NWSL Championship game between the Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash. This match came down to a battle of the goalkeepers as Utah’s Abby Smith faced off against Houston’s Jane Campbell. Campbell, who had the better penalty-saving record, once again showed why she was the best, saving 3 shots and sending the Dash into the semi-finals against Portland.
Washington Spirit vs Sky Blue FC
The third game of the knockout round saw the number two seed Washington Spirit take on the 7th seeded Sky Blue FC. Like the second game, this one was also determined by penalties which Sky Blue won 4-3. The Washington Spirit really struggled to convert goals with the loss of their captain Andi Sullivan who suffered a torn meniscus in the previous game, as well as having to limit the minutes of Rose Lavelle, having to sub her in during the 60th minute. Despite this, the Spirit did have a lot of chances, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Hatch and rookie Ashley Sanchez. Unfortunately, both of them were consistently denied by the efforts of Sky Blue’s super keeper Kailen Sheridan. Despite not having two of their main stars in national team players like Carli Lloyd and Mal Pugh, Sky Blue is thriving and proving that they can be a threat as other players step up into leadership roles. Sky Blue players like Jennifer Cudjoe who earned a starting spot off the bench after previously playing for the California Storm in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, as well as trade acquisitions like McCall Zebroni and Midge Purce, really helped Sky Blue hold off the pressure of Washington’s attack. During the penalty shootout, it was once again a battle of the keepers. Sky Blue’s Kailen Sheridan has been a consistent presence and rock in the net for Sky Blue the past four years, while Washington’s Aubrey Bledsoe has proved her value to the team in the last three years winning a multitude of honors. Sheridan who is also on the national team for Canada edged out Bledsoe by managing to save the last shot from Washington’s Bayley Fiest. That penalty punched Sky Blue’s ticket to the semi-finals against the winner of the fourth knockout game.
Chicago Red Stars vs OL Reign
Shockingly the fourth and final game of the knockout round went to penalty kicks as well as the sixth-seeded Chicago Red Stars barely managed to edge out third-seeded OL Reign 4-3 in penalties. The real story of this game was the triumphant return of OL Reign’s player Jess Fishlock from injury. She played her heart out and made a lot of impactful plays. On Chicago’s side, Julie Ertz was the true MVP. Her leadership skills on the ball and ability to do both the defensive dirty work and create scoring opportunities are exactly the reasons she is the captain. Ertz who scored the first penalty for Chicago seemed to energize the rest of her team and gave them the motivational advantage they needed to win the shootout. Both keepers for OL Reign and the Red Stars have nothing to be ashamed of. The Reign’s Casey Murphy who became the starting keeper last season, really stepped up and did her best, but fell to the experience of Chicago’s veteran keeper Alyssa Naeher.
The Semi-Finals of the NWSL Challenge Cup
With the knockout stage complete, the table is set for the semi-finals. On July 22nd, the Portland Thorns will take on the Houston Dash at 9:30 AM (PST), while the Chicago Red Stars will take on Sky Blue FC at 7PM (PST). The winners of those two games will face off in the final of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup on Sunday July 26th, at 9:30 AM (PST). You can catch the semi-finals on CBS All-Access, and the final will air on the regular CBS channel as well as CBS All-Access.