NWSL Challenge Cup preview and breakdown: how the tournament is shaping up for the Pride
With the beginning of the NWSL Challenge Cup a little under two weeks away, Marc Skinner and his Orlando Pride players will be eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get back to playing the game they love. The NWSL Challenge Cup represents uncharted territory for all involved. It's been a long off-season, and a trying few months for many of us. At last we can look forward to a little normality. Soccer is back! The tournament is going to be a huge test for the Pride. They cannot have been handed a tougher run of games to open the tournament. Here we delve into the Challenge Cup format, and analyse how the Pride and their opponents are shaping up heading into the tournament.
When and where does the tournament get underway?
The NWSL recently announced the full schedule for the preliminary rounds of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret. The 25-game tournament will kick off on June 27, 2020 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. The 25 game tournament begins with the favourites, and reigning NWSL Champions, the North Carolina Courage facing off against the Portland Thorns.
The format of the tournament will feature the league’s nine clubs each playing four games in the preliminary rounds to determine seeding. The top eight teams will advance to the quarter-finals, when the tournament becomes a knockout competition. The semifinals and Final presented by Budweiser will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, with the Championship match slated for July 26, 2020.
How can I catch all of the action?
All of the action will be available live and on-demand via CBS's various platforms for residents of the United States and Canada. International fans can view live and on-demand via Twitch.
What's the Pride's schedule looking like?
Yeah... About that. Go ahead and take a seat. We'll break them down for you. It certainly ain't pretty.
Chicago Red Stars, Saturday 27th June
The Chicago Red Stars and Orlando Pride have served up some great encounters over recent years. Who could ever forget the 5-2 victory for the Pride in Chicago? There was drama last September as well, as a last gasp Casey Short header earned the 10 player Red Stars a deserved 1-0 win at Exploria Stadium.
This is a much changed Chicago side however, which doesn't make them any less dangerous. The team from the Windy City will be looking to build on last season's 2nd place finish. And they've certainly made some moves during the off-season. The loss of Sam Kerr to Chelsea is a huge blow, however. Kerr was the team's 18 goal top scorer, before she departed for West London in January 2020. Other key departures include Nikki Stanton and Brooke Elby. So far the Red Stars have added Kealia Watt (Ohai) from the Houston Dash, as well as trading for Makenzy Finial from the Utah Royals and Rachel Hill from ourselves.
Chicago also had a productive draft, with Julia Bingham out of USC probably being the most notable pick-up. The defender can operate in the middle of a back four, but primarily plays at full-back. Bingham finished her collegiate career playing a total of 89 games with 85 starts, 10 assists, and 1 goal. Bingham's pick was followed by followed by Virginia’s Zoe Morse with the 19th pick, Duke’s Ella Stevens with the 24th pick and Yale’s Aerial Chavarin with the 35th pick overall.
Truthfully we could have picked any number of players out here, as the Red Stars roster is littered with talent on both the defensive and offensive side of the ball. Alyssa Naeher, Kaelia Watt (Ohai), Casey Short, Yuki Nagasato... The list goes on. The one who really brings this club together though is undoubtedly Ertz. The tough tackling defender or midfielder, has been playing an in anchored defensive midfield role for the Red Stars. And to great effect as well. She shields the Red Stars backline, whilst also serving as a springboard for her more creative and offensive team mates. She's a vocal leader on the field, who is as equally adept in the air as she is on the deck. The USWNT legend is the glue that holds this team together.
Portland Thorns, Wednesday 1st July
The Thorns are a constant thorn in Orlando's side (pun intended). But then a lot of teams can probably say that about Portland. The winds of change have been blowing through Providence Park this off-season. 2019 ended in heartbreaking fashion for this club, with an agonising play-off semi final defeat at the hands of Chicago. Despite all of the off season moves, Portland will be among the movers and shakers come the end of this tournament. This will be another huge test for the Pride.
There have been a few key departures from the club this off-season. Emily Sonnett joined ourselves. The Thorns also lost Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Andressinha. Brynjarsdottir and Sonnett, in particular, were key players for the Thorns last season, and will be hugely missed. Brynjarsdottir featured 22 times, registering 60 clearances and 23 interceptions. Sonnett featured in 14 games, with 63 clearances and 22 interceptions. Despite missing much of the season whilst at the 2019 FIFA World Cup.
The club have also lost Midge Purce (who joined our final opponents Sky Blue) and Hayley Raso this off-season. Purce and Raso accounted for 12 goals between them last season. So both of them, will be a huge miss.
All that being said, the Thorns have moved to address these issues. Rocky Rodriguez was acquired from Sky Blue, in a deal that saw Midge Purce to the other way. In terms of additions, Portland had a very productive time at the 2020 NWSL College Draft, using their first-overall pick from the Pride to select forward Sophia Smith from Stanford. Smith registered 24 goals from 33 games at collegiate level. Which is an impressive record. The Thorns then made a trade with the Red Stars for the second-overall pick in which they opted to select forward Morgan Weaver from Washington State. Weaver tallied 15 goals in 24 for WSU. The Thorns also acquired the rights to defender Christen Westphal on draft day in a trade with OL Reign.
The USWNT legend needs little introduction. Heath has 33 goals in 168 games at international level, and is a double World Cup winner. The tricky winger or forward is equally as adept cutting inside, as she is going on the overlap and whipping dangerous crosses into the centre.
Heath is quick and pacey, and has a high soccer IQ. Her experience on the field, will continue to be invaluable for the team. Expect Heath to be a big player in this tournament. She usually is. She's also usually good for a goal against us... Sigh. Getting to grips with her will be vital if the Pride are to get anything from this game.
North Carolina Courage, Sunday July 5th
Well, what can we say about the Courage that hasn't already been said many times over? The Courage's irrepressible high press, and dominance in possession of the ball were evident to everyone in 2019. The Courage romped to a second successive NWSL triumph. The third game of the Pride's schedule doesn't come much tougher than this.
The Courage have shied away from making any significant wholesale changes to their roster this off-season. And who can blame them? Arguably the most notable departure was that of Heather O'Reilly, who decided to call it a day at the end of 2019. O'Reilly bowed out on a real high, one she had earned following a glittering career at both club and international level. Another notable departure, is that of McCall Zerboni who has joined Sky Blue FC. As part of that deal, the Courage completed the acquisition of Hailie Mace.
Mace is a very credible addition for an already strong looking Courage roster. The youngster signed a two-year contract with the club in January. The UCLA alumni is coming fresh from a spell at FC Rosengard in Sweden, where she made 16 appearances, scoring four goals and laying on two assists. Mace is a versatile defender, who can operate anywhere across the back line. Another positive acquisition comes in the form of former Texas A&M forward Ally Watt, who boasted a 49 goal record from 90 games for the Aggies. The Courage will be hoping Watt serves as a good foil for the likes of McDonald and Williams in their already frightening attack
Again, this was another difficult selection from a roster loaded with talent. Debinha is the playmaker in this team. She is a true number 10 in its purest form, and is the latest in a long line of Brazilian playmakers to grace the NWSL. Her 10 goals from 21 appearances last season speak for themselves. Debinha plays as though the ball is attached to her boot, and her low centre of gravity means she is able to pivot her way out of the trickiest of situations. In my opinion she is one of the best forwards in the entire league.
Sky Blue FC, Thursday July 9th
It's been a difficult few years for the New Jersey based outfit. There were considerable concerns for the future of the club just over a year ago, with the club even having to go as far as to advertise for a voluntary assistant coach. Things are finally on the up, however. The sky is the limit. Again, pun intended-my puns don't get any better, sorry.
Sky Blue have certainly made some impressive moves during this off-season. We'll start with the departures though. As previously mentioned, Rocky Rodriguez left the club along with Jen Hoy. Rodriguez was, potentially, a huge miss. Rodríguez made 75 appearances and 66 starts in four seasons with Sky Blue, netting three goals and tallying three assists in 2019. The club had to replace her. And they certainly did that (see key player).
McCall Zerboni and Midge Purce have been drafted in, alongside some impressive 2020 NWSL Draft picks in USF-product Evelyne Viens at fifth-overall and defender Kaleigh Rahl from Penn State at 11th overall. Oh, and they also added someone called Mallory Pugh? Pugh is a very dangerous forward, who needs little in the way of introduction. Add these names to a roster that already includes the likes of Kailen Sheridan and Carli Lloyd. Sky Blue look strong all over the park, and I back them to go deep in this tournament.
In my opinion, the acquisition of McCall Zerboni represented one of the best pieces of business conducted across the entire league during this off-season. The energy and tenacity Zerboni brings, is something that Sky Blue have sorely lacked for a few years. In 2019 Zerboni tallied 24 appearances, with 19 starts. Her value, in terms of the defensive side of the game, should not be underestimated. The Camarillo native completed 49 successful interceptions, with a 79% pass completion rate. She will bring energy and drive to a talented midfield m
How are the Pride shaping up?
It's been another season of rebuilding for this club. That being said, they have made a lot of positive moves during this off-season. The Pride have added leadership and experience down the spine of the team, which is something they have sorely lacked for a few years now.
There have been some notable departures from the club as well with the likes of Dani Weatherholt and Rachel Hill heading out of the door. The acquisitions of players such as Jade Moore, Erin McLeod and Emily Sonnett provide the team with great options on the defensive side of the ball. Defensively we look reasonably solid. And I don't think I've ever been able to say that about this team.
The Pride are also in the very unusual position of actually having depth and options all over the field. Most of their internationals are currently available also, at least at the time of writing. As we all know, Alex Morgan is doubtful for the tournament having given birth on May 7th. She has expressed a desire to get back to playing as soon as possible, however. The Pride will be hoping that the USWNT star is able to board the flight to Utah. Rosters are due to be confirmed June 23rd.
Marc Skinner and the Orlando Pride tended to play with one up front last season, with the likes of Marta and Marisa Viggiano playing off of the main striker. Having the likes of Sydney LeRoux and Alex Morgan would be a huge boost to the team, as it allows them to play with a 2 (see graphic below). Even if Morgan is unavailable, they have options with the likes of Marta, Claire Emslie and Caitlin Farrell on the roster. I'm also, personally, expecting big things of Taylor Kornieck. The midfielder plundered 39 goals from 82 games at collegiate level, and has the physical attributes to cause problems for NWSL defenders in this tournament. The below graphic demonstrates the strength in depth this team has. The likes of Jade Moore, Emily Van Egmond and Claire Emslie don't make the cut.
The Brazilian legend is central to everything the Pride do offensively. Her skill and vision allow her to get on the ball and make things happen in dangerous areas. Her career goals and assists speak for themselves.
She is the team's most important player by a country mile.
How far can the Pride go in this tournament?
I think, given the schedule, the Pride will do well to make it to the knockout stages. Anything else from that point is a bonus.
How far do you think the Pride can go in this tournament? Let us know via the usual channels!