This time, the Women go first!
The NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) begins it’s “2020 Season” today and becomes the first American team sport to hold competition matches since March 12th, when the Challenge Cup: Presented by Secret kicks off this afternoon in Utah.
The North Carolina Courage, 2 time defending NWSL Champions, with most of its roster from last season in-tact, are the obvious heavy favorites to advance through the Challenge Cup setup to the finals one month from now. Though, the ever intriguing “new faces in new places” and other x-factors may provide for some intriguing storylines during the knockout rounds.
Stars making moves, blue chip trades like Malory Pugh to Sky Blue FC (though she will miss the tourney with a hip injury) and opt-outs of key players from the USWNT roster has left powerhouses like the Utah Royals, the Portland Thorns and OL Reign in a challenging position.
So what are we getting in Utah, here’s each team’s preview:
Chicago Red Stars 2019 record: 14–8–2 Players to watch: Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz, Casey Short, Yuki Nagasato, Kealia Watt (Ohai) Players missing: None The Four Star Report: 2019 league MVP Sam Kerr left to play for Chelsea, leaving a huge hole on the Red Stars scoring sheet. Though the retention by Rory Dames of keeper Alyssa Naeher and defenders Julie Ertz and Casey Short mean that the progressive backfield, the engine driving the offense is still in-tact. Veteran Kealia Watt (Ohai) comes up north from the Houston Dash and will pair with Japan legend Yuki Nagasoto to create the new 2-pronged attack on the front line.
Houston Dash 2019 record: 7–12–5 Players to watch: Jane Campbell, Megan Oyster, Kristie Mewis, Rachel Daly, Nichelle Prince Players missing: None The Fast Lane: Houston is oddly the only NWSL side without an allocated player from the USWNT. This means their flare is quite international, led by stars from North of the Border and Across the Pond in the form of Canadian Nichelle Prince and English star Rachel Daly. Veteran and should be USWNT player Kristie Mewis rounds out the top line. The team dispatched with Dash notables like Sofia Huerta, Amber Brooks and Kealia Watt (Ohai) in exchange for other dispatched notables in the likes of Shea Groom, Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton. Look for the Dash to perhaps impress in this format which may prove useful to a team with sporadic results and never higher than a 5th place finish in league play.
North Carolina Courage 2019 record: 15–5–4 Players to watch: Stephanie Labbé, Jaelene Daniels, Crystal Dunn, Abby Erceg, Debinha, Sam Mewis, Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, Kristen Hamilton, Ally Watt Players missing: None The Champ Is Here: Paul Riley’s (who does not truly get the credit his legendary coaching career deserves) back-to-back champs just fed the beast during the offseason and find themselves ready to roar again. North Carolina led every major stat last year in scoring (54) and defense (23 goals allowed). Heather O’Reilly’s retirement certainly left a void in the team’s leadership. Striker Jessica McDonald will sit out at least the first match with an injury, Crystal Dunn, Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton will drive NC’s offensive tallys.
OL Reign 2019 record: 10–6–8 Players to watch: Lauren Barnes, Alana Cook, Shirley Cruz, Jess Fishlock, Allie Long, Bethany Balcer, Sofia Huerta Players missing: Megan Rapinoe (opted out) The Lion’s Den: The Reign are playing with foreign money on US soil after the club’s acquisition by OL Groupe, which included the hiring of coach Farid Benstiti following the departure of Vlatko Andonovski to the USWNT. Megan Rapinoe, quite vocal during the offseason has opted to sit out due to health concerns, but with Jess Fishlock and Allie Long in the midfield, I’m not sure Seattle fans are worried. NWSL Rookie of the Year, Bethany Balcer, who took to Twitter to wonder where players from her HS days who bragged about being D1 NCAA talents might be now, will have to prove she wasn’t just a fluke (not likely she was having seen her play multiple times last year) with assistance from Sofia Huerta and Shirley Cruz. The forever under-rated and sometimes under-appreciated Michelle Betos (who holds the trivia question answer of the only goalkeeper to score a non-PK goal in NWSL history) returns to lead the Reign backfield.
Portland Thorns 2019 record: 11–6–7 Players to watch: Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair Players missing: Tobin Heath (opted out), Adrianna Franch (injury) The Rose City Report: The Thorns who’ve been to the playoffs in six of the league’s seven seasons, acquired defender Becky Sauerbrunn and secured through the draft young riser Sophia Smith and talented Morgan Weaver are dealing with the departures though of Emily Sonnett, Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter and Midge Purce. Coach Mark Parsons does still have Canadian Captain Christine Sinclair though the opt-out of crafty midfielder Tobin Heath and injury to keeper Adrianna Franch will present his most challenging coaching duties to date.
Sky Blue FC 2019 record: 5–14–5 Players to watch: Kailen Sheridan, Midge Purce, McCall Zerboni, Paige Monaghan Players missing: Carli Lloyd (injury), Mallory Pugh (injury), Caprice Dydasco (injury), Madion Tiernan (undisclosed) The Buzz: Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh are sidelined due to non-severe injury. Seasoned fullback Caprice Dydasco suffered an ACL tear during re-training camp and just last night the team announced they have shutdown for at least 45-days the rehab of Madison Tiernan who suffered an ACL tear during training camp last season. Freya Coombe, who served as the team’s interim head coach for the final five games of the 2019 season, gets her first crack at the full helm for the newly tooled NJ/NY Sky Blue who moved their team facilities to Red Bull Arena and the Red Bull’s training facilities after a decade at Rutgers University. Alyse LaHue, the architect of Chicago Red Stars back in the day, has put Sky Blue on the rise back to its former glories, though the quick play and turn-around style of the Challenge Cup means adjustment time is not very present.
Utah Royals 2019 record: 10–10–4 Players to watch: Rachel Corsie, Kelley O’Hara, Desiree Scott, Amy Rodriguez, Vero Boquete Players missing: Christen Press (opted out) The Roar: Will some familiar climate and home-cooking be the trick? Rookie Tziarra King, Spanish midfielder Vero Boquete will look to continue her partnership with veteran striker Amy Rodriguez, which dates back to their days in the WPS with the Philadelphia Independence, and Defender Kelley O’Hara will lead the Royals on their home ground. Up front will be the question for the Royals as they miss the prowess of Christen Press.
Washington Spirit 2019 record: 9–8–7 Players to watch: Aubrey Bledsoe, Jordan DiBiasi, Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle Players missing: None The Capitol Beat: Richie Burke’s project is almost complete. Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan return to a retooled offense along with superstar veteran Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, who notched a league-best 86 saves in 2019 bring the Spirit flying into Utah as the biggest X-factor side in the entire tournament. This team looked poised to break the barrier towards the end of last season and made a valiant run at the playoff picture until the final few days.