What the NWSL Challenge Cup Indicates for the League's Regular Season

The Portland Thorns lifted the trophy despite showing plenty of room for growth, plus more takeaways from the preseason tournament.
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The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup is over, with the Thorns taking home the trophy after edging Gotham FC in penalties in Saturday’s championship game. Portland and New Jersey/New York earned their spots in the final by winning their respective divisions, making the tournament a condensed version of last summer’s Challenge Cup but still a worthwhile endeavor.

While this year’s event didn’t carry quite the weight of the 2020 one in Utah—serving this time more as a preseason booster that partly took place during an international window, with key absences for certain group-round games—it was a chance for teams to make an early statement or get a jump on incorporating new pieces heading into the regular season. Here are eight things we learned.

Portland is indeed the team to beat

No one had to go out on a limb to predict that Portland would win the Challenge Cup. The only thing that seemed to realistically stand in the way of the Thorns reaching the final was potentially dropping too many points in their two games without their star internationals (they won both matches). And while Portland was held to a draw in regulation in its final two games of the tournament (vs. Houston and Gotham), there’s no doubting it was a worthy winner. It outshot Gotham 26–8 on Saturday, giving up just one shot on goal, and was unlucky to not open up a lead bigger than 1–0 in the first half.

What should give pause to the rest of the league, however, is the fact that the Thorns aren’t at their final form. That’s true for everyone, of course, but there is still plenty of room for Portland to grow. Crystal Dunn, for one, hasn’t truly made her mark yet as she adjusts to a new system (and as Mark Parsons adjusts to having her in a midfield that is typically run through Lindsey Horan). Sophia Smith had a tough day trying to find the back of the net on Saturday, but the young striker continually put herself in threatening positions. Simone Charley had a big tournament and looks primed for a strong season, and Morgan Weaver continued last year’s Cup heroics with the game-winning penalty. Come October, this team could be downright scary.

The Portland Thorns won the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup

Gotham has arrived

Fresh off a franchise rebrand, Gotham FC did enough work in its first two games (wins over Orlando and North Carolina) to earn a spot in the final despite back-to-back scoreless draws to close the group stage. This was the biggest step yet in the club’s remarkable turnaround from one that was collapsing both on and off the field in 2018 to one that now has a new name, a new stadium (Red Bull Arena) and a completely new outlook.

“No matter what, we’ve already won. And we’re just getting started,” tweeted GM Alyse LaHue before Saturday’s championship started. And while her team did not win despite a valiant effort (and a result that could’ve easily gone either way as the sides traded penalties for seven rounds), it showed that LaHue and others’ visions for Gotham are more than just words on a piece of paper. With back issues flaring up for captain McCall Zerboni, the club aggressively traded for former USWNT midfielder Allie Long mid-Challenge Cup, a move to help solidify it in both the short and long-term. And while the Gotham backline had a few shaky moments in the Cup, it showed enough to inspire belief that this team can go beyond just trying to nab one of the six playoff spots. It remains set to add UNC star Brianna Pinto, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft, this spring/summer as well.

Chicago still needs to find its offense

Ever since Sam Kerr left for Europe after the 2019 season, there’s been one obvious question hanging around the Red Stars: who is going to score their goals? Rory Dames opted for a by-committee approach in 2020 and got mixed results, then made a flurry of moves in the offseason, trading away forwards Yuki Nagasato (eight goals, eight assists in 2019) and Savannah McCaskill to secure expansion draft protection and bringing in Mallory Pugh.

The move for Pugh was an intriguing one, as the 23-year-old has struggled to be healthy and productive in her NWSL career but obviously remains a serious talent. Coming off injury, she played 99 minutes in the Challenge Cup and scored a gorgeous goal against the Reign, offering a glimpse of what she can bring to this club in 2021. Overall, though, Chicago tallied just three goals across four games (a fourth, by Kealia Watt, was questionably deemed offside), and aside from the minutes Pugh was sidelined, was not really missing much in its attack. The Red Stars are a quality side, but goal-scoring consistency is going to remain a narrative until they prove they can change it.

The Dash aren’t messing around

Coming off their breakout 2020 performance, the main question around the Dash entering 2021 was whether their success was a circumstantial fluke, or whether they’re a team that can actually contend now. The returns from this Challenge Cup were positive, despite Houston missing six starters against the Red Stars and Reign. The Dash joined Portland and Gotham as the only teams to go unbeaten in the group round, and tied the Thorns for fewest goals conceded in it (two). Their 1–1 draw against Portland in their finale—one of the best games of the tournament—is a solid building block for James Clarkson’s club heading into the regular season.

The downside: While the Katie Naughton/Megan Oyster-led defense was stout, the Dash offense struggled in the final third and was at times lethargic in their games without Kristie Mewis, Rachel Daly and Nichelle Prince. It’s very clear in particular how much having Mewis pulling the strings in central midfield elevates Houston’s counter-based attack, and there’s no clear replacement when she’s out. If Mewis goes to Tokyo with the U.S. Olympic team—even as an alternate—the Dash’s depth will be seriously tested this summer.

The Courage are a work in progress

No team’s Challenge Cup performance was more shocking than North Carolina’s, simply because it was so out-of-character from what we've grown accustomed to from Paul Riley’s club. No one was expecting this to be the dominant Courage of old—not with players like Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper in Europe and Dunn now in Portland—but few anticipated just how badly N.C.’s defense would get picked apart. This still looks like a team that can score with anyone—in fact, its nine goals in the group stage were three more than anyone else—but the theme in the Challenge Cup was: can it stop anyone?

Seeing Riley sub out both center backs at halftime of the Courage’s game against Gotham was jarring, but also a testament to how dire the situation was. To be fair, the tournament-long absence of veteran CB Abby Erceg was a huge one, and her pending return could go a long way toward stabilizing things. And while she’s not a defender, the news that Mewis is reportedly returning to North Carolina this summer after her spell with Manchester City brings a world-class midfielder back into the fold (when she’s not at the Olympics, of course). The Courage will likely be just fine, but this year, “fine” might mean winning a lot of shootouts. And when you have Debinha, that becomes a heck of a lot easier to do.

OL Reign at the NWSL Challenge Cup

The roller coaster Reign are on the way up

OL Reign started slow in the Challenge Cup, including a 2–0 loss to rival Portland, before exploding for five goals in the final two games (vs. Chicago and Kansas City) to finish off a solid tournament overall. Five players scored those goals (one was a penalty), which is a great sign for a club that often didn’t seem on the same page offensively in 2020. Another good sign: Megan Rapinoe suited up for the Reign for the first time since 2019, while young players Tziarra King, Leah Pruitt and Madison Hammond all had standout games.

All eyes, though, are who the Reign are bringing in next. Ten days into the Challenge Cup, the club announced that midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalie Sarah Bouhaddi will come on loan from Olympique Lyonnais in early June, and recent reports have linked Lyon midfielder Eugénie Le Sommer to Tacoma. All three players are stars on the international stage who the Reign hope will take them to a new level (and don’t forget, this team also owns Rose Lavelle’s NWSL rights). And since neither Germany nor France earned a spot in the Olympic field, the Reign could do some serious damage during that window.

Trinity Rodman is ready now

The No. 2 pick in the 2021 NWSL draft has precious days left as an 18-year-old, but she played like a vet while turning heads at the Challenge Cup with her poise, first touch and attacking presence. While the Spirit didn’t have the tournament they were hoping for, coming in fourth place in the East, Rodman was a bright spot for a team that entered the year with questions surrounding its attacking production. Rodman saw time in all four matches, starting three and recording a goal (in her debut) and a game-winning assist. She also tallied 11 key passes and was consistently dangerous inside the opponents’ box.

If Rodman carries her Challenge Cup form into the regular season, it would be a massive development for Washington’s 2021 fortunes. Rodman, Ashley Hatch and Ashley Sanchez hunting for goals gives the Spirit an exciting young frontline to lead their push for a playoff spot.

No one looked overwhelmed

While the Challenge Cup divisions definitely seemed unbalanced both on paper and on the field, the Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville made the most of their opportunities in the East. Orlando won its first match of any kind in 609(!) days when it held off the Spirit behind a stellar performance by goalie Ashlyn Harris, and its third-place showing in the division should be a confidence-builder for Marc Skinner’s team. Most encouragingly, the Pride only gave up three goals in four games, including shutting out a Courage team that pinned three scores on each of the division’s other three teams.

Playing in its first games as a club, Louisville showed promise despite finishing at the bottom of the East table. Forward CeCe Kizer is already looking like an excellent pickup from the expansion draft, while first-round college draft picks Emily Fox and Emina Ekic also impressed. Racing held their own in the Challenge Cup, and looked like a club that could pull off a few surprises this season while building for the future.

Kansas City, meanwhile, was given the unenviable task of competing in the West division, where heading in it was the clear outlier paired with playoff contenders Portland, Houston, Chicago and OL Reign. K.C. did not win any of its four games but also was never shut out, holding multiple leads overall and scrapping a point in a draw with the Red Stars. Coach Huw Williams has his work cut out for him, but his team did show the ability to score (and not just via Amy Rodriguez) and was dangerous in transition. The defensive miscues must be cleaned up, though, if it’s to compete in more games than not in the regular season.

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