NWSL Challenge Cup Preview: Tuesday, June 30

Sports, welcome back. 

Saturday’s doubleheader provided all the excitement we anticipated from having the best in women’s soccer back on the pitch. Now, with the first two matches of the NWSL Challenge Cup under our belt, we shift our attention to the other four clubs who will take the field for the first time in 2020 on Tuesday. Both matches will be telecast on CBS All Access in the U.S. and Canada with international fans able to stream on Twitch.

We know our stan had us finish defeated on Saturday, so we’re counting on you, the fans, to pull us in the right direction. To cast your vote for who the Pride will be rooting for throughout Tuesday’s slate, follow @ORLPride on Twitter and also follow the Club’s pages on Instagram and Facebook.

Houston Dash vs. Utah Royals FC (12:30 p.m ET, CBS All Access)
The first matchup on Tuesday will see two sides square off that made significant changes this offseason when the Houston Dash take on the host club, Utah Royals FC. Not only did both sides debut some of the best new kits since we saw them last (Houston...giving you the edge here), but they also added many new pieces to their respective rosters.   

The Dash saw a number of their marquee players depart following the 2019 campaign, namely forward Kealia Watt, the club’s captain the last three seasons. Following six seasons in Houston where she registered 114 appearances with 28 goals scored and 16 assists, Watt was dealt to Chicago this offseason via trade. 

Also suiting up elsewhere in 2020 are forward Sofia Huerta and defender Amber Brooks, who appeared in each of the Dash’s 24 matches in 2019. Both were dealt to OL Reign in early February in a trade that saw the Dash acquire forward Shea Groom and defender Megan Oyster from the Tacoma-based side. Huerta finished tied for the team-lead in goals scored a year ago with five, while Brooks played every minute of the 2019 campaign. 

Following a 2019 that saw the Dash finish second to last in the league in goals scored with just 21, it was clear that Head Coach James Clarkson looked to fortify their attack this offseason. Groom is an exciting addition to that attack, having scored 21 goals throughout her NWSL career, including two in 15 appearances last season for the Reign. 

In addition, Clarkson dealt a trade with the Royals to acquire forward Katie Stengel, who is set to make her Dash debut on Tuesday against her former club. Stengel scored two goals for the Royals last season and was the club’s leading scorer in their inaugural campaign in 2018 with six finishes.

Stengel and Groom will look to add to an attack spearheaded by English international Rachel Daly. Despite missing seven matches in 2019 while away at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Daly finished the season tied for the team-high with Huerta for goals scored with five. Midfielder Kristie Mewis will also be a major piece on the offensive for the Dash, returning to Houston following a 2019 season where she netted four goals and added two assists. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Houston acquired center back Katie Naughton as part of the trade that sent Watt to Chicago. Naughton was a stalwart on the backline for Chicago a year ago, appearing in 22 matches for the Red Stars with 18 starts, helping lead them to their first NWSL Championship appearance. Joining her in Houston is Oyster, from OL Reign, who started 20 games a year ago and is entering her sixth NWSL season, along with defender Erin Simon, acquired from West Ham United of the FA Women’s Super League.

Naughton, Oyster and Simon will look to improve a defense centered around goalkeeper Jane Campbell, who played every minute of the 2019 season for the Dash, registering 71 saves and six clean sheets. Campbell, now entering her fourth NWSL season, has recently been called into camp for U.S. WNT Head Coach Vlatko Andonovksi and will be a huge factor in how the Dash fare throughout the tournament. 

Other key returners for the Dash are Canadian National Team members defender Allysha Chapman, midfielder Sophie Schmidt and forward Nichelle Prince. Prince, along with forwards Veronica Latsko and Kayla McCoy, will return to the squad after suffering season-ending injuries early in the 2019 season. 

Now to the hosts, the Utah Royals.

So this team at first glance is going to look...a little different. 

Starting at the helm, Head Coach Laura Harvey departed the club this offseason to take over the U-20 U.S. WNT following two years in Utah, where she led the Royals to a 19-17-2 record. Harvey leaves the NWSL second in the league in career wins, with a 72-52-38 record combined between her time in Utah and her previous tenure at Reign FC.

Harvey is replaced by Craig Harrington, who joins the Royals after serving as the first assistant for the Chicago Red Stars. Through two seasons in Chicago, Harrington helped the Red Stars to a 23-12-13 record, two NWSL Playoff appearances and the club’s first NWSL Championship appearance a year ago. Before his time in the NWSL, Harrington served as the Technical Director and Head Coach for the Turks and Caicos Men’s National Team.

Looking at the personnel, the Royals most notable departure is that of U.S. WNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who was the club’s first-ever signing in late 2017 and its captain for the last two seasons. The 2019 NWSL Defender of the Year joined the Portland Thorns in March via trade, with the Royals receiving allocation money and defender Elizabeth Ball in return. In two years, Sauerbrunn appeared in 34 matches for the Royals, leading the backline to 13 clean sheets. 

Additionally, the Royals announced last week that forward Christen Press will not feature in the Challenge Cup. Despite missing 10 matches while away at the FIFA Women’s World Cup a year ago, Press netted eight goals for the Royals, just one shy of the team lead, and added two assists in 2019. 

Other departures for Utah include forwards Makenzy Doniak and Stengel via trades with the Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash respectively, along with midfielders Erica Tmyrak, Mandy Laddish and defender Sydney Miramontez, all to retirement. 

On the flip side, the Royals have added some new faces to their roster, including midfielder Aminata Diallo on loan from Paris Saint-Germain for the 2020 season, while also signing defender Taylor Leach following four years in Sweden and midfielder Chestley Strother from Swedish side Sundvall DFF. 

The Royals have also signed two of their NWSL College Draft selections in forwards Tziarra King out of NC State and Kate Del Fava from Illinois State, taken eighth and 12th overall respectively. Additionally, the Royals have signed midfielders Marissa Sheva and Holly Daugirda to short-term contracts.

While the name recognition may not be the same, much of the Royals core roster from a year ago is back for the Challenge Cup. Two key figures are that of World Cup Champions Amy Rodriguez and Kelley O’Hara, the former named the club captain following the departure of Sauerbrunn and the latter poised to be the new anchor of the Royals’ backline. 

Also returning on the defensive are defenders Rachel Corsie and Katie Bowen, along with goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who led the league with 10 clean sheets a year ago. In the midfield, Spanish international Vero Boquete and Canadian National Team members Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott return to the club, along with Lo’eau Labonta, who registered 22 appearances a year ago.

The attack will be led by Rodriguez, who led the Royals with nine goals a year ago. Joining her will be forward Brittany Ratcliffe after missing the 2019 season to injury and newcomer Ariele Shipp, who the Royals claimed off the Re-Entry Wire at the end of 2019. 

With all these moving parts, it’s safe to say this matchup is wildly unpredictable. 

OL Reign vs. Sky Blue FC (10 p.m. ET, CBS All Access)
The nightcap will feature OL Reign...formerly Reign FC...formerly Seattle Reign, if you’re keeping score, and Sky Blue FC to close out the first round of matches for the Challenge Cup. 

So OL Reign had a lot of changes since we last saw them, not necessarily to player personnel, but literally everything else.

For starters, the name. This offseason, it was announced that Reign FC had entered into a definitive agreement with OL Groupe, the parent company of French side Olympique Lyonnais to acquire Reign FC. With the acquisition came a new brand identity, thus OL Reign. 

Now, at the helm. Former Reign Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski departed to the U.S. Women’s National Team following the 2019 campaign, filling the void left by former U.S. WNT Head Coach Jill Ellis. Andonovski spent two seasons with the Reign following a successful tenure at FC Kansas City, compiling a 68-47-43 record in his seven seasons in the NWSL. 

Andonovski has been replaced by France native Farid Benstiti, one of the most decorated coaches in women’s professional soccer. Benstiti brings eight domestic league titles to OL Reign across three countries, having taken both Olympique Lyonnais and PSG to the UEFA Women’s Champions League final. 

After combing through all that, now we can shift to the personnel. 

OL Reign’s Challenge Cup roster includes 12 new signings, most notably defender Alana Cook, who joined the club just over a week ago via a short-term loan from PSG. Cook, who signed with PSG in January of 2019, made eight appearances and helped the club finish as runners-up in the 2018-19 Division 1 Féminine season. Cook has also appeared in five champions league matches for Paris Saint-Germain in the past two seasons.

Other additions for the Reign include former Dash members Huerta and Brooks, as well as former Orlando Pride midfielder Dani Weatherholt, all acquired via trade. OL Reign also added Costa Rican midfielder Shirley Cruz, Japanese forward Yuka Momiki and Colorado Springs native defender Adrienne Jordan from FA WSL side Birmingham City. Additionally, the Tacoma-based side has signed NWSL College Draft selection Kelcie Hedge, who they selected ninth-overall out of Santa Clara. 

Departing the Reign this offseason were Oyster and Groom to Houston, forward Ifeoma Onumonu via trade with Sky Blue, defender Steph Catley and forward Bev Yanez to retirement among others. Forward Megan Rapinoe will not be on the pitch for the Reign at the Challenge Cup either, as she has elected to forgo the competition.

Returning to OL Reign are each of their four top-scorers from a year ago in NWSL Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer, along with forwards Darian Jenkins and Jodie Taylor, as well as midfielder Jessica Fishlock. Fishlock is one of four key players returning to the field in 2020 after a season-ending injury a year ago, along with goalkeeper Michelle Betos, defender Taylor Smith and forward Jasmyne Spencer.

U.S. WNT midfielder Allie Long will serve as the Reign’s only Federation player for the tournament with Rapinoe’s absence, joined by New Zealand international Rosie White in the midfield.

Now, on to Sky Blue.

To begin the offseason, Sky Blue officially named Freya Coombe as Head Coach following her interim role with the club in 2019. Coombe previously served as the Director of Scouting and as a Development Academy Coach for New York Soccer Club prior to her time at Sky Blue.

The New Jersey-based side worked to rebuild and rewrite the narrative surrounding the club this offseason, adding numerous players to improve their roster. However, some injuries ahead of the tournament may haunt the club when it comes to Tuesday’s matchup.

Sky Blue’s biggest addition was undoubtedly that of U.S. WNT forward Mallory Pugh, who they acquired via a draft day trade with the Washington Spirit. However, the club announced last week that Pugh will not be available for the tournament due to a right hip injury.

Also missing the tournament due to injury is team captain Carli Lloyd, the club’s leading goal scorer from a year ago and defender Caprice Dydasco, who played in all but one match for Sky Blue a year ago. 

Despite these injuries however, there still is lots of potential on the roster to make a splash in the tournament. The most exciting prospect is midfielder Midge Purce, who Sky Blue acquired via trade with the Portland Thorns for midfielder Rocky Rodríguez. A breakout star for the Thorns in 2019, Purce trailed only Canadian international Christine Sinclair in goals last season, netting eight while adding one assist.

Joining Purce in New Jersey are veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni from North Carolina and Onumonu from OL Reign, both of which made over 20 appearances for their respective clubs a year ago. On draft day, the club made four selections, most notably taking USF-product Evelyne Viens at fifth-overall and defender Kaleigh Rahl from Penn State at 11th overall, both of which they have since signed.

Returning to the club this season is Canadian international goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who shared the league lead in saves with Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe a year ago with 86. She’ll anchor the Sky Blue backline along with Erica Skroski to make up for the absence of Dydasco. 

Midfielder Sarah Woldmoe, formerly Killion, returns to the club as well, serving as the captain in Lloyd’s absence, while up top forwards Imami Dorsey and Paige Monaghan will look to help facilitate the attack along with Purce and Onumonu. 

Again, there’s a lot of changes on the pitch with this one too. With OL Reign looking to continue their success from a year ago and Sky Blue trying to make a statement, it should be a battle at Zions Bank Stadium come Tuesday night.