The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup ended, and the Thorns took home the trophy after beating Gotham FC on penalties in Saturday’s championship game. Portland and New Jersey / New York earned their place 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 the weight of 2020 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 opportunity for teams to make an early statement or take a leap in adding new pieces heading into the regular season. Here are eight things we learned.
Portland is indeed the team to beat
No one had to risk it to predict that Portland would win the Challenge Cup. The only thing that seemed realistically in the Thorns’ path to reach the final was potentially losing too many points in their two games without their star internationals (they won both games) . And while Portland remained tied for regulation in its final two tournament games (against Houston and Gotham), there is no question that it was a worthy winner. They beat Gotham 26–8 on Saturday, giving up just one shot on goal, and were unlucky enough not to open a lead greater than 1-0 in the first half.
However, what should pause the rest of the league is the fact that the Thorns are not in their final form. That’s true of everyone, of course, but there’s still plenty of room for Portland to grow. Crystal Dunn, meanwhile, has yet to make her mark as she adjusts to a new system (and while Mark Parsons adjusts to having her in a midfield normally run through Lindsey Horan). Sophia Smith had a difficult day trying to find the back of the net on Saturday, but the young forward continually placed herself in threatening positions. Simone Charley had a great tournament and looks set for a strong season, and Morgan Weaver continued the heroics of last year’s Cup with the penalty to win the game. In October, this team could be scary.
Gotham has arrived
Fresh off a franchise rebrand, Gotham FC worked enough in its first two games (wins over Orlando and North Carolina) to earn a spot in the final despite back-to-back goalless draws to close out the group stage. This was the biggest step so far in the remarkable change of the club 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 whole new perspective.
“Whatever happens, we have already won. And we are just beginning ” tweeted GM Alyse LaHue before Saturday’s championship started. And while his team didn’t win despite a valiant effort (and a result that could easily have gone either way as the parties traded penalties for seven rounds), it proved that LaHue and others’ visions for Gotham are more than just words. on a piece of paper. With back problems for captain McCall Zerboni, the club aggressively switched to former USWNT midfielder Allie Long mid-Challenge Cup, a move to help solidify it in both the short and long term. And while Gotham’s bottom line had some shaky Cup moments, it showed enough to inspire the belief that this team can go beyond just trying to catch one of the six playoff spots. She is also set to add UNC star Brianna Pinto, the third overall pick in the 2021 draft, also this spring / summer.
Chicago still needs to find its offense
Ever since Sam Kerr left for Europe after the 2019 season, there has been an obvious question haunting the Red Stars: who will score his goals? Rory Dames took a committee approach in 2020 and got mixed results, then made a number of moves in the offseason, trading forwards Yuki Nagasato (eight goals, eight assists in 2019) and Savannah McCaskill to secure draft protection. expansion and bring in Mallory Pugh.
Pugh’s move was intriguing, as the 23-year-old has struggled to stay healthy and productive throughout her NWSL career, but is obviously still a serious talent. After injury, he played 99 minutes in the Challenge Cup and scored a magnificent goal against Reign, offering a glimpse of what he can bring to this club in 2021. Overall, however, Chicago scored just three goals in four games. (a quarter, by Kealia Watt, was questioned offside), and aside from the minutes that Pugh was offside, he didn’t really miss much of his attack. The Red Stars are a quality team, but goal scoring consistency will remain a narrative until they show they can change it.
Dash is not playing
Coming off their great performance in 2020, the main question surrounding the Dash going into 2021 was whether their success was a fluke, or if they are a team that can actually compete now. The returns from this Challenge Cup were positive, despite Houston missing six starters against Red Stars and Reign. The Dash joined Portland and Gotham as the only teams to go undefeated in the group round, tying the Thorns for the fewest goals conceded in it (two). Their 1-1 draw against Portland in their final, 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 strong, Dash’s offense struggled in the final third and was at times lethargic in its games without Kristie Mewis, Rachel Daly and Nichelle Prince. It’s very clear, in particular, how much Mewis pulling the strings in central midfield elevates Houston’s counterattack, and there’s no clear replacement when he’s out. If Mewis goes to Tokyo with the US Olympic team, even as a substitute, the depth of the Dash will be seriously put to the test this summer.
The Courage is a work in progress
No team’s performance in the Challenge Cup was more shocking than North Carolina, simply because it was so far out of line than we’ve become used to at Paul Riley’s club. No one expected this to be the dominant Courage of yesteryear, not with players like Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper in Europe and Dunn now in Portland, but few anticipated just how bad the NC defense would look. This still looks like a team that can score with anyone; in fact, his nine goals in the group stage were three more than the others, but the theme of the Challenge Cup was: can stop someone?
Seeing Riley substitute for both centers at halftime of Courage’s game against Gotham was jarring, but also a testament to how dire the situation was. To be fair, veteran CB Abby Erceg’s absence throughout the tournament was huge, and her pending comeback could go a long way toward stabilizing things. And although she is not an advocate, the news that Mewis is reportedly returning to North Carolina This summer, after her stint at Manchester City, she brings back a world-class midfielder (when she’s not at the Olympics, of course). The Courage will probably be fine, but this year, “good” could mean winning a lot of shootouts. And when you have Debinha, that becomes a lot easier to do.
The Reign roller coaster is on the rise
OL Reign started slow in the Challenge Cup, including a 2-0 loss to rival Portland, before exploding for five goals in the last two games (against Chicago and Kansas City) to finish 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 to be on the same page offensively in 2020. Another good sign: Megan Rapinoe dressed for the Reign for the first time since 2019, while young players Tziarra King, Leah Pruitt and Madison Hammond had outstanding games.
However, all eyes are on who the Kingdom will bring next. Ten days after the Challenge Cup, the club announced that midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi will be on loan from Olympique Lyonnais in early June, and recently reports have linked Lyon midfielder Eugénie Le Sommer with Tacoma. All three players are stars on the international stage that the Reign hope will take them to a new level (and don’t forget, this team also owns the NWSL rights to Rose Lavelle). And since neither Germany nor France earned a spot on 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 when she was 18 years old, but she played like a vet while turning heads in the Challenge Cup with her poise, first touch and attacking presence. While Spirit didn’t have the tournament they hoped for, coming fourth in the East, Rodman was a bright spot for a team that entered the year with questions about its offensive production. Rodman saw time in all four games, starting three and recording a goal (on his debut) and an assist to win the game. She also scored 11 key passes and was consistently dangerous inside the opponents’ box.
If Rodman carries his Challenge Cup form into the regular season, it would be a breakthrough for Washington’s fortunes in 2021. Rodman, Ashley Hatch and Ashley Sanchez on the hunt for goals gives Spirit a young and exciting front line to lead. his push for a playoff spot.
No one seemed overwhelmed
While the Challenge Cup divisions definitely looked lopsided both on paper and on the field, Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville made the most of their opportunities in the East. Orlando won its first game of any kind in 609 (!) Days when it held off Spirit behind a stellar performance by goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, and its third place in the division should be a confidence builder for Marc Skinner’s team. . Most encouragingly, Pride only allowed three goals in four games, including eliminating a Courage team that scored three touchdowns for each of the other three teams in the division.
Playing in their first games as a club, Louisville showed promise despite finishing at the bottom of the East table. Forward CeCe Kizer already looks like an excellent expansion draft player, while first-round college draft picks Emily Fox and Emina Ekic also impressed. Racing held its ground in the Challenge Cup and looked like a club that could pull off some surprises this season as it prepares for the future.
Kansas City, meanwhile, was given the unenviable task of competing in the West division, where topping it off was the clear outlier along with playoff contenders Portland, Houston, Chicago and OL Reign. KC did not win any of his four games, but he was not excluded either, holding multiple advantages overall and eliminating a point in a tie with the Red Stars. Coach Huw Williams has a lot of work ahead of him, but his team showed the ability to score (and not just through Amy Rodriguez) and was dangerous in the transition. However, defensive mistakes must be cleaned up if you want to compete in more games than in the regular season.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.