NWSL Challenge Cup Preview: Saturday, June 27

NWSL Challenge Cup Preview: Saturday, June 27

Unfortunately, plans have changed.

On Monday, the Pride announced their withdrawal from the NWSL Challenge Cup due to positive and inconclusive results from COVID-19 testing and the required contact tracing. While we will not be playing matches of our own, we will do our part in using our platform to cover the teams that are.

Therefore, we will be previewing and recapping the Challenge Cup in its entirety on our channels to continue to do our part to grow the women’s game. 

With that said, let’s preview Saturday’s doubleheader to kick things off!

North Carolina Courage vs. Portland Thorns FC (12:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Let’s start off with a bang why don’t we? The tournament opener will see the two clubs that have combined for the last three NWSL Championships square off live on CBS, marking the first time a U.S. broadcast network will air live professional women's club soccer nationally. 

I won’t bore you with the details of their dominance, but these teams are really good. 

The Thorns come into this matchup with the bigger question mark, having made a significant number of offseason moves despite their recent successes. Two of the club’s top three goalscorers from a year ago will be suiting up elsewhere this year in Midge Purce and Hayley Raso, while veteran defender Emily Sonnett was sent to the Pride in exchange for Orlando’s first-overall selection in the 2020 NWSL College Draft.

Replacing Sonnett on the backline is none other than two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who the Thorns acquired from Utah in early March. She joins fellow U.S. WNT teammate Lindsey Horan on the squad for the Challenge Cup, with midfielder Tobin Heath having opted out and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch reportedly out with a knee injury.

On draft day Portland went for all the marbles, taking top-prospect forward Sophia Smith first overall out of Stanford and then subsequently trading with Chicago for the second overall selection, where they opted to take forward Morgan Weaver out of Washington State. Smith will reportedly be sidelined at the onset of the tournament with a lingering issue.

Top scorer from a year ago and Canadian Women’s National Team legend Christine Sinclair will spearhead the Thorns’ offense, entering her eighth season for Portland. Without Heath, Purce and Raso, the main question mark resides in whether the newcomers up top and returners Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi and Marissa Everett can replicate the same firepower we’re used to seeing from the Portland side.

Now shifting to North Carolina. I’m sorry, we have to.

Once again, the Courage are the favorites to lift a trophy, namely due to their lack of changes from a year ago. The marquee departure this offseason was that of FIFA World Cup Champion and U.S. WNT midfielder Heather O’Reilly, who retired following a 17-year professional career. The Courage also traded veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni to Sky Blue FC in exchange for the rights to Hailie Mace. Zerboni appeared in 22 matches last season with 19 starts.

Mace comes to North Carolina following a year in Sweden with FC Rosengard where she made 16 appearances, scoring four goals and adding two assists. The second-overall pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft, she is touted for her versatility and will be an exceptional role player for the Courage throughout the tournament. 

Ahead of the Challenge Cup, the Courage have signed three of their 2020 NWSL College Draft picks, most notably sixth-overall selection Ally Watt out of Texas A&M. Additionally, they have also signed Canadian international Lindsey Agnew via waivers. 

Returning to North Carolina for the tournament are a number of their namesake playmakers in young standouts Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton, who combined for 21 goals a season ago and 10 assists, along with last year’s team MVP Denise O’Sullivan. 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champions Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper also return along with Brazilian international Debinha.

We know you love to hate them, but it’s safe to say there will be a lot of talent on the pitch come Saturday afternoon to open up the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit (10 p.m. ET, CBS All Access/Twitch)
The nightcap will feature two clubs with high expectations heading into the tournament in the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit. The match will be telecast on CBS All Access in the U.S. and Canada with international fans able to stream on Twitch. 

For Chicago, the most obvious question is - How do you replace Sam Kerr?

With the two-time NWSL MVP and three-time Golden Boot winner departing the club this offseason, the Red Stars will need to make up for that offensive presence that contributed to 23 of the Red Stars’ 41 goals last season.

Kealia Watt may be one of the answers, who the Red Stars traded for from the Houston Dash in exchange for the No. 18 overall pick in the 2020 NWSL College Draft and defender Katie Naughton. Watt was drafted second overall by the Dash in 2014 and since joining the NWSL has made 114 appearances, scoring 28 goals while adding 16 assists. Another newcomer up top is forward Makenzy Doniak, who Chicago acquired via a trade with the Utah Royals. 

On draft day, the Red Stars made five selections, four of which they have named to their Challenge Cup roster, while trading with the Pride to acquire forward Rachel Hill. Additionally, the club signed former Florida State standout goalkeeper Cassie Miller. 

For the tournament, Chicago’s roster boasts five allocated U.S. players in goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defenders Tierna Davidson, Casey Short and Julie Ertz, as well as midfielder Morgan Brian - four of which won a FIFA Women’s World Cup with the U.S. WNT a summer ago. Returning to the club also is Japanese international midfielder Yuki Nagasato, their 2019 assists leader. 

While the Red Stars still hold many recognizable names from a year ago, the question remains whether or not they can keep the momentum of 2019 alive that saw the club appear in its first NWSL Championship without their most prolific attacker?

Shifting to Washington - the name recognition isn’t quite the same. However, the talent is very much there.

Departing the club this offseason were two of its biggest names in U.S. WNT forward Mallory Pugh and Jamaican international Cheyna Matthews - the former via a draft day trade with Sky Blue FC and the latter taking a leave of absence for personal reasons. 

The highlight of the current Spirit roster is U.S. WNT midfielder Rose Lavelle - the club’s only Federation Player. However, the roster still boasts numerous members that have been named to recent rosters for Vlatko Andonovski in midfielders Jordan DiBiasi and Andi Sullivan, goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe and forward Ashley Hatch, all of which will be available for the tournament. 

Bledsoe will look to defend her title as 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year throughout the tournament, while Hatch and DiBiasi will aim to maintain their momentum from a year ago, combining for 11 goals to lead the side. 

At the 2020 NWSL College Draft, the Spirit made five selections, all of which will be available for the Challenge Cup. Standing out amongst that group is fourth-overall selection Ashley Sanchez out of UCLA. A highly-touted U.S. WNT youth international, Sanchez has appeared for the U-14, U-15, U-17, U-20 and U-23 teams and is expected to make an immediate impact for the Spirit.

Additionally, Washington has added five players from overseas in goalkeeper Devon Kerr (FC Metz), defenders Brooke Hendrix (West Ham United FC) and Jenna Hellstrom (KIF Ă–rebro), midfielder Jessie Scarpa (Lidkoping FK) and forward Kumi Yokohama (AC Nagano Parceiro), all of which could make their NWSL debuts in Utah. 

Following a fifth-place finish in the table a year ago, the Spirit will look to continue to build on the successes of 2019 and become a true dark horse in this tournament. 

Who to Root For and How to Watch:
While we wish we were taking the field in Utah, we hope you’ll follow along as we cover the tournament from start to finish. To watch, be sure to subscribe to CBS All Access (just $5.99 for the month!), where every match will be available to stream in the U.S. and Canada. International viewers can follow along on Twitch

Ahead of each match, fans are encouraged to vote for who they will be rooting for (despite how painful it might be...looking at you, Portland) in each contest. As part of the Club’s dedication to grow the game, the results of those polls will determine who our social channels support for each individual game. 

To keep up with who we’re pulling for in each match and to cast your vote, follow @ORLPride on Twitter and also follow the Club’s pages on Instagram and Facebook.