by: Becca Rightnour
On June 27th in Utah, eight of the nine National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams will begin competing in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. The competition will run until July 26th and is essentially a replacement for the 2020 NWSL season, which was interrupted by the Coronavirus. This unique situation of a short season condensed into a twenty-three game tournament will allow players from these eight teams a chance at the spotlight. I predict that each of the teams will have at least three players who will have standout performances in the tournament. All of the teams possess players that can be impactful on the game and totally change the complexion of any match-up. For many of the younger players, especially the recently drafted college players, this is a chance to prove that they belong in the professional league. For other players, who have teammates that have opted out of the Challenge Cup or were recently traded, this is a chance to prove to their coaches that they belong in the starting eleven. In honor of the NWSL’s return, I thought I’d talk about the players that I think will make a good impact in the Challenge Cup
CHICAGO RED STARS
Starting with the Chicago Red Stars, the three players I think will make the biggest impact are Rachel Hill, Kealia Watt (formerly Ohai), and Yuki Nagasato. Rachel Hill was traded from the Orlando Pride in the off-season to the Red Stars. I think she will really excel under the tutelage of veteran players like Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, and Kealia Watt. A strong tournament from a young player like Hill could really cement her prospects as a future player for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT). While Hill lacked a powerful team connection in Orlando, playing with a close-knit team like Chicago might just be what she needs to put her on the map. Kealia Watt, formerly the captain of the Houston Dash, is almost a player that stands to make a big splash on the Red Stars. Watt is a veteran NWSL player, with lots of leadership experience that she can put into use as she helps the Red Stars recover from a disappointing end to their 2019 season. A shorter tournament benefits her because if given playing time, she can add versatility to the team that they are lacking. Watt is an exciting player to watch and can read the game exceptionally well. Kealia Watt will be a force of nature once she gets a strong defense behind her. Finally, for the Chicago Red Stars, I believe that Yuki Nagasato will make a huge impact. After the departure of Sam Kerr from the Red Stars, Nagasato’s leadership will be needed to fill the void that Kerr left. Their striking partnership was the reason that the Red Stars got to the final of last year’s NWSL championship. It will be essential for her to develop a strong partnership with the new forwards like Watt and Hill, for the team to be successful again. I believe that Nagasato will be able to put the team on her back during the Challenge Cup and lead them to victory.
The Houston Dash spent the end of the 2019 and early 2020 season rebuilding. After a disappointing 7th place finish in the standings, the Houston Dash team is looking forward to bouncing back and earning their way to the top of the NWSL totem pole. The Challenge Cup presents an opportunity for two veterans, forward Rachel Daly and keeper Jane Campbell to step up and take the reins of the team, after the departure of former captain Kealia Watt. Rachel Daly, who plays internationally for England, is now being handed the captain’s band along with Campbell. Taking over for Watt means she has big shoes to fill, and no doubt the fiery player will rise to the occasion. Rachel Daly is fast, technical, and not afraid to play her heart and soul out. If Jane Campbell has the standout tournament that I think she will, it will launch Houston’s new captain into contention for a goalkeeping spot on the USWNT. Campbell was previously the third-string option, but lost out to Portland’s AdriannaD Franch, so a strong tournament could get her some much-needed attention. Katie Stengle will also be seeking to make a statement, as she was traded from the Utah Royals to the Houston Dash. Considering the tournament is being played in Utah, it’ll be her chance to show that they made a mistake in trading her away. Watch out for Stengle in the Challenge Cup, she has a nose for scoring strategic goals and not giving up on plays. Stengle will be hungry to make an impact.
NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
After yet another dominating season, the North Carolina Courage has one of the strongest teams going into the Challenge Cup. Still, even with all of that star power that the team possesses, there are players that could make a huge impact on the Challenge Cup. My first bet would be defender Merrit Matthias, after a season-ending injury in 2019, she will be hungry to make a comeback and to prove to coach Paul Riley that she deserves to have her spot on the starting eleven back. My second pick would be Crystal Dunn, despite her resume speaking for itself, this World Cup winner will no doubt be poised to have an amazing tournament. Dunn’s versatility on the pitch and her ability to read the game is unparalleled. No matter where she’s placed, expect her to make an immediate impact and change the game. Finally, look for striker Kristen Hamilton to have a standout tournament. She will for sure be one of the players to watch on the Courage team. Every year in the league Hamilton is getting better and better, so I look to her to be the breakout star of the whole Challenge Cup. The North Carolina Courage is without a doubt the odds-on favorites to win the tournament, so look for Dunn, Matthias, and Hamilton to continue the Courage’s dominance.
The team that I am personally going to be cheering for since the Orlando Pride withdrew is OL Reign. Formerly Reign FC, the renamed OL Reign, made many interesting moves in the offseason, such as acquiring players like Dani Weatherholt, Shirley Cruz, and Sofia Huerta. I think these three players, in particular, will have a lot to prove and will stand to make the biggest impact. Weatherholt was a stalwart in Orlando, often captaining the team when many of the starting players were competing in the World Cup. A player with crunching tackles and endless determination, Weatherholt will certainly thrive under the tutelage of the Welsh Dragon, Jess Fishlock. Ol Reign’s competitive style of play will fit better with Weatherholt’s and allow her more freedom on the pitch. Paired with Fishlock, Weatherholt will have the ability to help lock down the midfield in favor of the Reign. Shirley Cruz, from Costa Rica, will also benefit from now playing on the OL Reign. She is a crafty player, with the ability to dribble and make magic happen. With Megan Rapinoe sitting out of the tournament, this is an opportunity for Cruz to get playing time. She will be motivated to score as many goals as possible, to make her case for more starts in the future. Finally, Sofia Huerta is my ultimate pick for OL Reign. She has the most to prove, after finding herself on the outside of the USWNT roster bubble. A strong performance could put her back on the radar, and a striking partnership with Jess Fishlock or Jodie Taylor could be exactly what she needs to excel. Huerta is a very tenacious player, whose speed and ability to create dynamic chances, can only further propel a team that has struggled to find its former dominance. Weatherholt, Cruz, and Huerta are all going to be looking to cement their spots on OL Reign, look for them to pull out all the stops to make a great impression.
The Portland Thorns will also be on the hunt to re-establish themselves as an NWSL powerhouse. The Thorns have tasted glory and know what it takes to be at the top of the NWSL standings, their acquisitions of strong players only solidify their desire to be at the top once again. The three players I expect to be the standouts from Portland are defender Becky Sauerbrunn, and forwards Tyler Lussi and Sophia Smith. Becky Sauerbrunn is arguably the greatest defender that the NWSL has ever seen. The former captain of both the Utah Royals and the USWNT, Sauerbrunn’s addition to Portland’s backline will only make them more unstoppable. I expect Sauerbrunn to earn a spot on the tournament’s best eleven, due to her leadership skills, as well as her ability to play make and read the game. With Tobin Heath sitting out of the tournament, Portland now has an opening in the starting line up. Tyler Lussi will be vying for that spot, this tournament will be a chance for Lussi to get more playing time as well as an opportunity to establish herself as a future leader of the team. In nine appearances for the Portland Thorns last year, Lussi scored four goals, this tournament will allow her a chance to make her case for that starting position.
SKY BLUE FC
Sky Blue FC, as a whole, will be looking to make an impact. Due to injuries, they will be without their captain Carli Lloyd, as well as US-international Mallory Pugh. Had those two not been injured, they would have been on my radar for Sky Blue’s players of the tournament. Since they are not playing, my picks are Kailen Sheridan, McCall Zerboni, and Midge Purce. Sheridan who plays for the Canadian National Team will once again be in goal as Sky Blue’s first choice keeper. Despite Sky Blue’s less than stellar history, Sheridan has been the one consistent on the team. There is no doubt that she will once again be a rock star in goal, and will probably have the save of the Challenge Cup. Both midfielders Zerboni and Purce, who were traded from North Carolina and Portland respectively, will add depth to Sky Blue’s attacking ability. Not only is Purce fast, but with her high soccer IQ, she is an indispensable player in both the midfield and as a forward. Zerboni will have a standout tournament, because of her ability to anchor the midfield. Sky Blue has struggled both defensively and offensively the last couple of years, the addition of Zerboni and Purce will be exactly what the team needs to turn the club around. With those two mid-field powerhouses and Sheridan’s consistency in goal, look for Sky Blue to be the dark horses of the tournament.
The Washington Spirit will use the Challenge Cup to try and catapult themselves from the middle of the standings back to the top. Despite being a team of younger players, Washington will no doubt be hungry for victory. The three that I will be keeping an eye on are midfielder Andi Sullivan, defender Tegan McGrady, and forward Bayley Feist. Andi Sullivan is the captain of the Washington Spirit and will be using the tournament to make a name for herself. She is one of the players on the cusp of making the National Team, so a strong tournament could put Sullivan on the map. Sullivan was put into a leadership role early on, but now that she has some experience, I expect her to lead the team in some very decisive victories. Defender Tegan McGrady only made nine appearances last year, and is still a relative rookie in the NWSL. McGrady can bring an interesting defensive wrinkle to the Spirit’s line up. She knows what it’s like to be a champion, having won a college championship with Stanford in 2017. Finally, Bayley Feist, I expect her to make an impact as she’s vying for more playing time and a spot in the starting line-up. Feist only had five appearances for the Spirit in 2019, but she managed to score a goal. This tournament could be the one where the NWSL is put on notice because Feist is a smart striker with a nose for goal when given the opportunity. The youth of the Washington Spirit will make them a serious threat moving forward.
Rounding out the eight competing teams is the only one who will have home-field advantage, the Utah Royals. The Royals are going to be looking to rebound from the loss of their former captain Becky Sauerbrunn, as well as their disappointing sixth-place finish in the 2019 season. The three players I think will be the most decisive for Utah are veterans Amy Rodriguez and Diana Matheson, as well as 2020 college draft pick and newcomer Tziarra King. Rodriguez who is a former national team player was recently chosen to be the Utah Royals captain. She will likely use this tournament to prove that she was the right pick for the job, she has big shoes to fill, but NWSL fans have learned never to count out ARod. Rodriguez knows what it takes to be a world champion as well as an NWSL champion, she will use her leadership skills to steer the team in that direction. Canadian International Diana Matheson will be eager to prove herself as she comes back from injury. Despite being an older player, Matheson still possesses speed and experience that will make her a vital part of the Utah Royal’s offense in the tournament. Finally, Tziarra King, I expect big things out of Utah’s college draft pick. For a team that will be lacking the dynamic playmaking ability of Christen Press, King has a chance to step up and show the NWSL fans what she can do during the Challenge Cup. It will be a good test to see if she can excel in the league’s faster level of play.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances that ruined the traditional NWSL season, I look forward to seeing these eight teams playing in the 2020 Challenge Cup. It will be an opportunity for younger players to make their mark on the game and get valuable playing experience. The North Carolina Courage will be looking forward to continuing their dominance, while teams like the Houston Dash and the Utah Royals, will seek to rebuild after the departures of their captains. For the first time in a long time, there is not a definitive hierarchy for the teams. This Challenge Cup tournament could be the breakout performance these teams are looking for.
WHEN DOES THE NWSL CHALLENGE CUP START?
Be sure to tune in, many of the games will be streamed on CBS All Access and Twitch streaming platform. The 2020 Challenge Cup begins this Saturday at 9:30 AM (PST) on CBS with a matchup between rivals North Carolina and Portland in a rematch of the 2018 NWSL Finals. You won’t want to miss it.