NWSL Challenge Cup Primer: Prediction, Stars to Watch, Sleepers and More

The USA's first major pro sports league to return to action amid the pandemic will be the NWSL, with its Challenge Cup tournament kicking off in Utah on Saturday. Here's what you can expect to see.
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Despite a Monday revelation that the Orlando Pride have withdrawn from the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup due to several positive COVID-19 tests, the show appears to be going on.

When the North Carolina Courage kick off against the Portland Thorns on Saturday, the NWSL will become the first professional U.S. team sport to return since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the country in March.

In lieu of its planned regular season, which was supposed to begin in April, the NWSL is holding a month-long tournament in Utah this summer. The Challenge Cup, which begins June 27 at Zions Bank Stadium, will be held without fans in attendance (and with a strict protocol in place regarding virus precautions), and will consist of 23 games: 16 preliminary round matches—all eight teams play four times—four seeded quarterfinal matches, two semifinals and a July 26 championship game that will air on CBS.

The preliminary-round pairings were originally chosen by random lottery, but the schedule had to be re-done after Orlando's withdrawal. The new full schedule can be found here

Here's everything you need to know about the Challenge Cup, including how to watch, who the favorites are, key questions, a champion prediction and more.

How can you watch?

The NWSL Challenge Cup will largely take place on CBS All Access (which costs $5.99 for one month of service) for viewers in the U.S. and Canada, with all matches being streamed on Twitch for international viewers. CBS will air the June 27 tournament opener between the Courage and Thorns on national TV, as well as the championship game. Full games will be available on CBS All Access and Twitch after airing, and replays of games will air on TV on CBS Sports Network (schedule here). All matches will kick off at one of two times: 12:30 p.m ET and 10 p.m. ET, which is an effort to avoid holding matches during the hottest parts of the day in Utah.

Who are the star players involved?

All NWSL players—including U.S. women’s national team members—were given the option to either play in the tournament or sit out, with the guarantee that they would be paid either way. This means that some of the Challenge Cup rosters are a little different than what a typical regular season would have featured, and indeed, USWNT stars Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd (knee) and Mal Pugh (hip) were all noticeably absent from Tuesday's team roster drops (in addition, the Pride's four U.S. players—Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger and Emily Sonnett—will be sidelined after the team withdrew). A bulk of the USWNT will participate, however, including Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis (North Carolina Courage), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals), Lindsey Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns).

The NWSL is also well-represented internationally and will continue to be in Utah—though Orlando's withdrawal means no Marta, who is one of the league's biggest names. Brazil's Debinha (NC Courage), Wales’s Jess Fishlock (OL Reign), Japan’s Yuki Nagasato (Chicago Red Stars), Spain’s Vero Boquete (Utah Royals), England’s Rachel Daly (Houston Dash) and Jodie Taylor (OL Reign), France’s Aminata Diallo (Royals), Canada's Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns) and more are among the international stars suiting up.

Christine Sinclair, Crystal Dunn and Rose Lavelle will star at NWSL's Challenge Cup

The Favorite: North Carolina Courage

There’s no debate here: While anything can happen in a tournament setting, the NWSL’s back-to-back reigning champs have to be considered the favorite to take home this crown as well. The Courage have dominated the league the last two seasons, going 17-1-6 back in 2018 and 15-5-4 in 2019 despite several of their key players missing NWSL action in the latter during the Women’s World Cup. Under head coach Paul Riley, North Carolina unleashes a high-octane attack that’s heavy on shot attempts and putting opposing defenses under pressure. Proving just how deadly it can be, it won its semifinal and final clashes last season by an 8–1 aggregate, including trouncing Chicago 4–0 in the championship.

If that weren’t enough, the Courage will nearly be at full strength for the Challenge Cup, and their only notable roster loss since the end of 2019 was the retirement of Heather O’Reilly, who moved into a starting role after outside back Merritt Mathias tore her ACL late in the season. With Mathias still recovering, right back will be a position to watch for North Carolina, but that’s about the only real question mark this team has. Dunn, Debinha, Sam Mewis, Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg will once again headline a terrifyingly strong roster, one that knows how to play together and has the depth and fortitude to excel in a tournament format.

The Top Challengers: Chicago Red Stars and OL Reign

North Carolina’s likely biggest threats are two familiar faces to NWSL fans: the Red Stars and Reign, who have both made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. But while the Courage retain almost all of their key pieces from their 2019 success, the same can’t be said about Chicago, which had the single biggest departure of the offseason: league MVP (and scoring machine) Sam Kerr, who took her talents overseas to Chelsea. Kerr has been a one-woman wrecking crew for the last few years in the NWSL, and she leaves a huge void in the Red Stars’ attack. The remaining core of the team, however, returns and will make the trip to Utah, including do-it-all star Ertz, defenders Casey Short, Sarah Gorden and Tierna Davidson, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo and Nagasato, who will be looked upon to pick up the scoring slack. Heavy on depth and experience, expect Chicago to be right in the thick of things again.

Meanwhile, don't overlook the Reign, who are in a much healthier position for this tournament after overcoming several key injuries in 2019 to make the playoffs. Reigning Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer is back after she burst onto the scene last season despite going undrafted out of NAIA Spring Arbor University, and her presence, plus newly acquired forward Sofia Huerta (who has USWNT experience) will help cover for the absence of Rapinoe. The Reign also remade their backline, trading away center back Megan Oyster for Amber Brooks and recently signing young PSG talent Alana Cook on loan for this tournament. Another key is the return of Fishlock, the veteran midfielder who tore her ACL a year ago. While the roster is largely solid on paper, the team will have to adjust to a new coach: former Lyon and PSG women’s manager Farid Benstiti, who replaced Vlatko Andonovski after he left for the USWNT job last fall.

The Dark Horse: Washington Spirit

Sky Blue FC (deservedly) generated the offseason’s biggest buzz, but the Spirit made their own strides over the last year and may be in better position to strike this summer after less roster turnover. Washington was an extremely young team in 2019 (only three players who made an appearance were older than 27, and the entire roster began the season under 30) yet missed the playoffs by just four points. The Spirit both started and ended the year strong (including a dramatic 2–1 win over the Courage in September) but were done in by a brutal stretch in July and August.

Even Washington’s biggest offseason departure, the trade of Pugh to Sky Blue, might not disrupt much, since she appeared in just nine of 24 matches last season, scoring two goals. Lavelle, one of the USA's World Cup heroes, who will play in the Challenge Cup, appeared in just six NWSL matches in 2019, and the presence of her and Andi Sullivan running the midfield in Utah will be a luxury for coach Richie Burke. Add in one of the best goalkeepers in the league in Aubrey Bledsoe, young talent like Samantha Staab, Jordan DiBiasi and Ashley Hatch and No. 4 draft pick Ashley Sanchez (UCLA), and it’s easy to picture the Spirit making a real push.

Toughest Preliminary Draw: Portland Thorns

This honor originally belonged to the now-sidelined Pride, but after the schedules were redone, it's Portland that drew the short stick. The Thorns already had a tough preliminary round—and it remained largely intact—but now their game against 2019's last-place team, Orlando, has been replaced by one against 2019 runner-up Chicago. In all, Portland has to face all three of last season's fellow playoff teams (the Courage, Red Stars and Reign) and the Spirit and do so without Heath's services and evidently that of goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, who will reportedly miss the Challenge Cup with a knee injury. If there's a silver lining for the Thorns, it's that they'll have eight days between their third and fourth games to rest.

A brutal draw makes things especially tough for Portland, which is historically an NWSL powerhouse but has seen significant roster turnover since the end of 2019. Over the offseason, it said goodbye to a number of players—especially on the front line—and just last week agreed to transfer talented young defender Ellie Carpenter to Lyon. The cupboard isn't bare—Horan, the 2018 NWSL MVP, will be patrolling the midfield, trade acquisition Sauerbrunn will anchor what should be a strong defense and Sinclair, now 37, returns up top—but the Thorns' ceiling may hinge on a pair of rookie forwards. The team traded up to draft 19-year-old Stanford star Sophia Smith (who will reportedly be limited at the start in Utah) and Washington State’s Morgan Weaver, and will need impact performances up top if it's to be a legitimate threat.

Three Big Questions:

1) How much will roster rotation impact the tournament?

The lack of a full preseason combined with the compressed schedule of the tournament (the preliminary round takes place over 17 days, with some teams playing four games across as few as 13 days) means roster rotation is going to be key for just about everyone. There’s a reason the NWSL is allowing teams to bring as many as 28 players to Utah and will allot five substitutions per game (compared to the usual three subs). Additionally, Royals coach Craig Harrington has said that USWNT players have an agreement with the NWSL to manage their minutes across the tournament, and it’s fair to reason that a similar kind of consideration will be given to all players.

With more roster rotation than usual, the teams with the most depth and the smallest drop-off from their normal starting XI to their bench should be at an advantage. There will be strategy involved, too, as coaches are forced to make decisions on which game(s) their star players will sit out (or be substituted out of) while keeping an eye on the minutes their opponents’ key players have already played. And, on top of everything, there’s still the very real possibility that more players tests positive for COVID-19 mid-tournament and get held out of action—or potentially even shut the whole thing down.

2) What does the Red Stars' attack look like post-Kerr?

Kerr, the reigning league MVP, who tallied 51 goals in 62 NWSL games over the last three seasons, leaves quite a void. She scored 18 of Chicago’s 41 goals in 2019, and scored or assisted on 23—more than half of them. In the three games that Kerr missed due to the World Cup, the Red Stars were held scoreless in three losses, prompting an in-season trade for Sky Blue forward Savannah McCaskill. For the last few seasons, Chicago’s offense has been headed by a star attacker (before Kerr, it was Press), but this time, there’s no obvious replacement.

Nagasato, who tallied eight goals and assists apiece last season, is an invaluable presence, but no one else on Chicago scored more than DiBernardo’s three goals in 2019. The Red Stars might try to replace Kerr by committee after trading for multiple frontline options: Kealia Watt (formerly Kealia Ohai) from Houston, Rachel Hill from Orlando and Makenzy Doniak from North Carolina. Watt may be the most intriguing of the bunch as a forward who has previously been on the fringes of the USWNT pool and scored 11 goals in 20 games back in 2016, but a 2017 ACL injury stymied her budding breakout and she’s scored just seven goals in 42 games since. Still, Watt was well worth a flier and has a knack for producing highlight-reel goals. The Red Stars will be hoping a change of scenery and the tutelage of coach Rory Dames results in her regaining some of her previous starring form.

3) How quickly can the new Houston Dash back line gel?

Houston made a few significant changes over the offseason after a seventh-place finish, parting ways with franchise stalwarts Watt and Brooks as well as the talented Huerta. Those trades brought in fresh defensive reinforcements in experienced center backs Oyster and Katie Naughton, and coach James Clarkson also signed outside back Erin Simon to join a defense that also includes Canadian international Allysha Chapman and 23-year-old Ally Prisock.

The Dash gave up 36 goals last year—second-worst in the league—and their defense has historically been a hindrance as the franchise still seeks its first playoff appearance. Reshaping the back line was a worthy investment—especially after re-signing Daly and as goalkeeper Jane Campbell enters her prime—but a tournament setting that guarantees only four games and will require rotation isn’t an ideal circumstance to test it out. If Houston is going to make noise in Utah, it’s going to need to settle into its new-look defense quickly and hope a lack of depth isn't its downfall. 

Houston Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell

Three Pivotal Players to Watch:

1) Midge Purce, Sky Blue FC

Injuries to Lloyd, Pugh and Caprice Dydasco have put a bit of a damper on the optimism around Sky Blue, but this team still has enough on paper to be competitive in Utah. Besides Pugh, its two biggest offseason acquisitions were Purce and veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni, and the former is coming off a breakout season in which she scored eight goals for Portland. After scoring the fewest goals in the league last season, Sky Blue needs an added punch, and Purce will likely be the top option in an attack that also includes Imani Dorsey and intriguing draft pick Evelyne Viens. Purce is a versatile player who has also spent time at outside back in both the NWSL and with the U.S. national team, but her clearest path to being an impact player in Utah should be up top.

2) Amy Rodriguez, Utah Royals

Of the players sitting out the Challenge Cup, Press’s absence from the Royals will likely have the most significant impact. She had been tearing it up for both club and country, including scoring eight goals in only 14 NWSL matches last season. Combined, Press and Rodriguez accounted for a whopping 17 of Utah’s 25 goals in 2019, with no one else scoring more than two (and one of the two players with two, Katie Stengel, has since been traded to Houston). That puts a lot of pressure on the 33-year-old Rodriguez to carry the scoring load for the tournament hosts, with some help from a supporting cast that includes forwards Brittany Ratcliffe (who missed all of 2019 with an ACL tear) and rookie Tziarra King and a stacked midfield with the likes of Boquete, Desiree Scott, Diana Matheson, Gunny Jónsdóttir and new French loanee Diallo.

3) Andi Sullivan, Washington Spirit

The 24-year-old Sullivan was an iron woman for Washington last season after being left off the USWNT World Cup roster. She missed just one game for the Spirit and was named team captain at age 23, a telling sign from Burke on just how important he believes she is to his organization. While Lavelle will attract both opponents' and fans' attention anytime she's on the field, Sullivan is an equally important engine in the Spirit midfield, and if this team is going to break through to the semifinals or beyond, it's going to need every bit of Sullivan's leadership and playmaking.

The Pick to Win it: North Carolina Courage

It’s hard to go against a team that’s been as successful as the Courage, especially when two of the other three 2019 playoff teams have arguably taken a step back on paper. If there’s a reason to believe in the field though, it’s this: the Cup winner will need to get through three single-elimination games compared to the usual two, and there will be no extra time in those games—a draw after regulation would go straight to penalties. In a 2019 semifinal match, the Reign successfully bunkered down for 90 minutes against North Carolina and forced extra time with a stoppage-time goal. While the Courage went on to win 4–1 in extra time, if that scenario happened again in Utah, this time it would go right to PKs—and anything can happen in a shootout.