NWSL's Future in Full Focus, But There's a Title to Be Won

Expansion announcements have taken the spotlight, but the war of attrition continues in Utah, where the scene shifts stadiums after a goal-light, drama-heavy set of quarterfinals.
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One could argue that the last couple of weeks about the NWSL's return to play has been as much about the future as it is about the present. The plans for two new expansion teams have been revealed in the last 13 days, with Louisville's Racing Louisville FC branding having the curtain raised on July 8, while Hollywood stars, USWNT greats and various industry titans took charge on Tuesday of the franchise that will kick off in Los Angeles in 2022.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the future for the league, one that looks significantly brighter than it did a few months ago, with the coronavirus-free conditions in the Challenge Cup bubble in Utah and new sponsors on board in addition to the new teams. The not-so-distant future is a bit more uncertain, with nobody really knowing when NWSL clubs and players will return to action. According to The Equalizer, a board meeting Tuesday was to include discussions about the possibility of more official games in 2020 and what it means for players if there are not.

The immediate future, however, remains clear for all four surviving teams. There's a title to be won.

The NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals are set

The quarterfinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup may have been light on goals, but they were not light on drama. The only goal scored in the four matches was one that took down the clear favorite and reigning league champion. The three scoreless matches that followed were settled by penalty kicks. The scene shifts from Herriman to Sandy and from turf to natural grass, with a few-day break in between the rounds perhaps affording clubs the rest needed to rediscover their scoring touches.

What remains is a semifinal round devoid of four of the top five seeds following the preliminary matches and four teams who should all feel quite confident in their chances of winning it all. The question is, which two will prevail in the continued war of attrition, where stars have fallen by the wayside and Orlando's rooting power has seemingly been the greatest indicator for success and failure.

Wednesday's semifinals begin with a clash between the No. 8 Portland Thorns and No. 4 Houston Dash (12:30 p.m. ET, CBS All Access). The Thorns, significantly shorthanded and hobbled, withstood the Courage's barrage of shots, got the goal they needed from Morgan Weaver and rode backup goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom and her eight saves to the upset. 

With Bella Bixby ruled out again, Eckerstrom will have a sequel to her smash debut in the competition. Who joins her remains up in the air. U.S. women's national team star midfielder Lindsey Horan left the win over the Courage in the 50th minute with what was deemed a left hip injury, and she's questionable—as is former U.S. left back Meghan Klingenberg. Bixby, Becky Sauerbrunn, Sophia Smith and Adrianna Franch remain out, and they're joined by starting right back Kat Reynolds, who was concussed vs. the Courage.

The Dash outlasted the host Utah Royals in PKs in the quarterfinals, with Jane Campbell, shootout specialist, showing up again for Houston. Whether the Dash, who conceded a tournament-high six goals in the preliminary stage, can remain stout defensively again remains to be seen. Megan Oyster fractured ribs vs. Utah and is an injury doubt, and only manager James Clarkson knows what will be of forward Katie Stengel. He claimed Tuesday that she'll be in the squad for Wednesday's match after she missed the quarterfinals entirely, evidently connected to internal drama regarding her and a relationship with the Dash's performance coach. As stated above, the goal tally may have tailed off in Utah, but the drama factor remains very much alive.

The nightcap features the No. 6 Chicago Red Stars and No. 7 Sky Blue FC (10 p.m ET, CBS All Access), two teams absolutely decimated by injury. Chicago will be without Morgan Gautrat, Tierna Davidson and Yuki Nagasato, among others, while Danielle Colaprico is questionable. USWNT stalwarts Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz will be there to protect the spine against a Sky Blue side that has only scored in one of its five matches in Utah thus far and has been missing Carli Lloyd and Mal Pugh throughout. One of the goalscorers, Paige Monaghan, is questionable.

It's quite clear that a wall has been hit, and perhaps that's to be expected after most players were out of action since October, save for international duty. To be thrust into a monthlong sprint and emerge in top form was a lot to ask. Regardless, whoever is left standing after Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium will be one step away from securing a trophy that represents the bridge between the NWSL's present and its bright-looking days in the years to come.