Last week, the NWSL announced it would return to play in the form of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup based in Utah, with matches set to begin on Saturday, June 27. The tournament will feature all nine teams with each slated to play four preliminary matches to determine seeding before the top eight move on to the knockout rounds.
On Monday, a draw for the tournament took place to determine the matchups for the preliminary rounds, in which the Orlando Pride drew the No. 9 slot. Following the results of the draw, the Pride are set to face three of the four teams from last year’s NWSL playoffs in the Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns FC and North Carolina Courage, with a matchup against Sky Blue FC to close out the Pride’s four prelim matches.
On paper, the Pride face perhaps the most difficult road for the tournament, one of just two teams to draw three playoff sides from a year ago - the other being tournament hosts Utah Royals FC. We’re going to break down the Pride slate match-by-match to give a glimpse of what the team can expect come tournament time.
Saturday, June 27: Orlando Pride vs. Chicago Red Stars
Following a season that saw Chicago reach the NWSL Championship for the first time in club history, the Red Stars entered an offseason that would see two-time NWSL MVP and three-time Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr depart the club to join Chelsea FC in the FA Women’s Super League. Kerr broke her own NWSL scoring record in 2019, having her hand in 23 of Chicago’s 41 goals last year, netting 18 and assisting on five. In addition to Kerr, the Red Stars saw midfielder Nikki Stanton and defender Brooke Elby leave Chicago this offseason, the former to play overseas and the latter to retirement.
The Red Stars made a number of additions to counter their losses this offseason, most notably acquiring forward Kealia Watt 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 has captained the club for the last three seasons. Since joining the NWSL she has made 114 appearances, scoring 28 goals while adding 16 assists.
Along with Watt, the Red Stars added forward Makenzy Doniak via a trade with the Utah Royals while making five selections on draft day in addition to acquiring former Orlando Pride forward Rachel Hill in exchange for the Red Stars’ third-overall pick the same day.
Returning to the Red Stars in 2020 are U.S. Women’s National Team midfielders Julie Ertz and Morgan Brian along with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Additionally, the Red Stars welcome back their assists leader from a year ago in forward Yuki Nagasato, who is expected to take on a larger role on the offensive with the departure of Kerr.
The marquee matchup within this contest is that of Chicago’s new-look offense against the Pride’s revamped backline. There are questions as to whether the Red Stars will be able to replicate their offensive prowess from a year ago with Kerr’s departure. With the Pride’s main focus of their offseason revamp being on the defensive side of the ball, it’ll be interesting to see how that underlying matchup unfolds and these two sides fare to open their Challenge Cup campaigns.
Wednesday, July 1: Orlando Pride vs. Portland Thorns FC
This past offseason was a busy one for the Portland Thorns, who made a number of big moves following a 2019 season that saw them fall to Chicago in the semifinals of the NWSL Playoffs.
The Thorns saw a number of departures this offseason, the most notable arguably via a trade with the Pride that sent U.S. WNT defender Emily Sonnett to Orlando, along with two NWSL College Draft selections for the Pride’s first-overall pick in this year’s draft. In addition, the Thorns mutually parted ways with midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who appeared in 21 matches for Portland in 2019. Brazilian midfielder Andressinha also departed from the club this offseason.
On the attacking end, two of the Thorns’ top-three goal scorers from a year ago will be suiting up elsewhere in 2020. Australian forward Hayley Raso departed the club for FA WSL side Everton earlier this year, while breakout forward Midge Purce was sent to Sky Blue FC via a trade that saw the Thorns acquire midfielder Rocky Rodríguez from the New Jersey-based side. Raso and Purce combined to score 12 goals in 2019 for the Thorns.
In terms of additions, Portland went all in at the 2020 NWSL College Draft, using their first-overall pick from the Pride to select standout forward Sophia Smith from Stanford. Minutes later they made a trade with the Chicago Red Stars for the second-overall selection in which they opted to select forward Morgan Weaver from Washington State. The Thorns also acquired the rights to defender Christen Westphal on draft day in a trade with OL Reign.
Despite all of the draft day moves, the Thorns added their biggest name in early March, acquiring U.S. WNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn via a trade with the Utah Royals for defender Elizabeth Ball and allocation money. The move to acquire Sauerbrunn appears to be one to replace the void of Sonnett, fulfilling that departed experience on the backline.
While the 2020 Thorns side will have some notable new faces, many familiar ones will still be in the mix. Top-scorer from a year ago Christine Sinclair returns to the Thorns for her eighth season, while U.S. WNT members Adrianna Franch, Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath all return to the squad this year.
The matchup that stands out within this contest is which side has been able to gel together the best in the short period of training leading up to the Challenge Cup. With each club featuring many new faces while still boasting some familiar, team chemistry will likely play a big role in this July 1 contest.
Sunday, July 5: Orlando Pride vs. North Carolina Courage
The Pride’s third matchup of the Challenge Cup will have them square off with the back-to-back NWSL Champion North Carolina Courage. The Courage made arguably the least moves this past offseason of any team in the league, essentially following suit with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra.
The most notable departure for the Courage this offseason was that of World Cup Champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist Heather O’Reilly. The former member of the U.S. WNT retired following the 2019 season after a 17-year career at the professional level. O’Reilly made 13 appearances for the Courage in 2019, starting four matches and scoring one goal.
In addition, the Courage traded veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni to Sky Blue FC in exchange for the rights to Hailie Mace, the second-overall selection in the 2019 NWSL College Draft. Zerboni leaves the Courage following three years in North Carolina, appearing in 22 matches last season with 19 starts.
Mace is the most notable addition for the Courage heading into this season, having signed a two-year contract with the club in January. The UCLA-alum spent 2019 as a member of FC Rosengard in Sweden, where she appeared in 16 matches, netting four goals and adding two assists. Coined for her versatility by many, she’ll be a key role player for the Courage this year. At the 2020 NWSL College Draft, North Carolina made four selections highlighted by Texas A&M forward Ally Watt, drafted sixth-overall.
Returning to the Courage this year are 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, who signed a multi-year contract this offseason. 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champions Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper also return along with Brazilian international Debinha.
With North Carolina’s offensive firepower being their namesake the last two years, this will be a marquee matchup for the Pride’s new-look defense.
Thursday, July 9: Orlando Pride vs. Sky Blue FC
To close out the preliminary rounds of the tournament, the Pride will square off with New Jersey-based side Sky Blue FC. Following an eighth-place finish in the standings a year ago, Sky Blue had a busy offseason, making a number of key additions to the roster.
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.
In terms of player personnel, the New-Jersey based club parted ways with midfielder Rocky Rodríguez via a trade with the Portland Thorns for standout forward Midge Purce. Rodríguez made 75 appearances and 66 starts in four seasons with Sky Blue, netting three goals and tallying three assists in 2019. In addition to Rodríguez, the club also saw the departure of forward Jen Hoy, who retired from professional soccer. Hoy scored two goals for Sky Blue a year ago, appearing in 21 matches.
The acquisition of Purce began a number of key moves for Sky Blue this offseason, the most notable taking place on draft day with the club acquiring U.S. WNT forward Mallory Pugh from the Washington Spirit in exchange for four NWSL College Draft picks. At 21 years of age, this will mark Pugh’s fourth NWSL season following a 2019 summer that saw her become a FIFA World Cup Champion with the U.S. WNT.
In addition to acquiring Purce and Pugh, Sky Blue also added veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni via a trade with North Carolina and forward Ifeoma Onumonu in a trade with 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.
This matchup will serve as a measuring stick for both clubs as to the effectiveness of their offseason acquisitions. The Pride will look to continue their current unbeaten streak against Sky Blue from a year ago, having gone 2-0-1 against the New Jersey-based club in 2019. With Sky Blue scoring a league-low 20 goals a season ago, it is clear they aimed to fortify their offense this offseason, making for an interesting matchup for the Pride to close out their Challenge Cup prelim campaign.
How to Watch:
To tune into each of the Pride’s preliminary round contests and the entirety of the NWSL Challenge Cup, fans can watch every game live on the CBS All Access subscription service in the U.S. and Canada, while all other international fans can stream the full tournament on Twitch. Both the tournament opener and the Final will be nationally televised on CBS.
The complete schedule for the preliminary round can be found here.