The NWSL Challenge Cup began the first-ever tournament for women’s soccer in June, almost a month ago, with eight of its nine teams.
Now there are just four teams remaining, and the semifinals are set to take place this week. There have been major upsets, with the top three seeds knocked out in the quarterfinals, exceptional goalkeeping performances, and three sets of penalty kicks to determine the final four: the Houston Dash, Sky Blue FC, the Chicago Red Stars, and the Portland Thorns. No matter which team ends up taking home the championship, it’s pretty clear to see that there will be some tough games and great competition ahead. Let’s take a look at each team’s chances of winning the Challenge Cup.
The Houston Dash was one of the biggest surprises of the tournament. After last season, in which they went 7-5-12 and missed the NWSL playoffs, fans were hoping the Dash could turn it around, and turn it around, they did. Offensive powerhouses Rachel Daly, Shea Groom, and Kristie Mewis combined for five goals in the preliminary games, and although the team wasn’t able to break through the Utah Royals’ defense in the knockouts, the Dash’s starting goalkeeper Jane Campbell was able to save three of the Royals’ five penalty kicks, and push her team into the semifinals.
Houston has put up an impressive performance thus far, which included a win against the OL Reign and a 3-3 tie against the Royals in the group stage. The Dash are strong contenders for the champions, but they’ll have to beat out the Portland Thorns first.
Chicago Red Stars
After the Chicago Red Stars lost world-class striker Sam Kerr, many wondered how the team would fill the hole she left. The Red Stars acquired Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill during the offseason, and when Yuki Nagasato has recovered from injury, their offensive line will be a strong one. The midfield is held together by Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Morgan Gautrat, and of course, to hold down the fort defensively, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher.
The Red Stars made it to the championship last season, and although they lost to the North Carolina Courage, the Courage is no longer in the tournament, and the Red Stars have made tremendous growth since last season. To win the championship, the Red Stars will first have to defeat Sky Blue FC, and this seems quite possible.
Sky Blue FC
Along with the Houston Dash, Sky Blue FC, the NWSL team based out of New Jersey, was one of the biggest surprises of the Challenge Cup. Although Sky Blue is missing star offensive players Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh, other players stepped up to the plate. Naho Kawasumi scored an excellent goal against the Houston Dash, while recent acquisitions McCall Zerboni and Midge Purce allowed the team’s defense and midfield to thrive. Kailen Sheridan put up an impressive performance in goal, as well.
In the past, Sky Blue FC has struggled to end the season with a winning record, but there have been many strides made and a lot of team growth over the past couple of years. But in order to make it to the finals, Sky Blue will first have to beat the Red Stars.
The Portland Thorns surprised everyone when it was confirmed that they were the eighth-place team at the end of the group stages. The Thorns didn’t win a game out of the four they played in the preliminary round, and when they were faced with the North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals, it seemed inevitable that Portland would be knocked out of the tournament. But thanks to Morgan Weaver’s goal, Portland earned a place in the semifinals.
Britt Eckerstrom put on one of the best goalkeeping performances in the history of the league, stopping every chance North Carolina had. Midfielders Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan did their part as well, creating opportunities and helping to push Portland through. Portland has made the championship in the regular season multiple times, and they have a good chance of making it again: they just have to beat the Dash.
The NWSL Challenge Cup has delivered everything fans wanted from it: drama, great competition, and an escape from the world that sports so often provide. The semifinals take place this week, the final the next, and four teams left to square off for the title.