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NWSL Challenge Cup

Missing stars, Courage rebuild and Dash reload: Five questions heading into the NWSL Challenge Cup

17:00 BST 09/04/2021
NWSL Challenge Cup GFX
The league returns on Friday with a month-long tournament ahead of the start of the regular season in May

The second annual NWSL Challenge Cup will look much different than the first.

First off, the term “annual” could now be used in describing the tournament, which was hastily assembled last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, but may now be a fixture of the league’s schedule moving forward. 

In 2021, every team in the league will participate, whereas Orlando pulled out in 2020 due to Covid-19 issues. There will be a new team as well, with Racing Louisville joining the league as an expansion franchise. 

This year the tournament will also take place in the 10 teams’ home markets, rather than the bubble environment that was a necessity in Utah last year. 

But the biggest difference between this year and last is the certainty of what comes next after the Challenge Cup ends. 

The NWSL was the first American professional sports league to return amid the pandemic last year, and though the Challenge Cup went off smoothly, nobody quite knew if and when play would resume after the tournament. 

The league cobbled together a four-match Fall Series competition last year following several months of uncertainty, but it felt somewhat hollow with nothing at stake and many players leaving the NWSL on loan or simply opting out.

This year, there will be a 24-game season that begins on May 15 – just one week after the Challenge Cup ends. With a clear picture of what comes next, the present looks that much better.

Before the Challenge Cup kicks off on Friday, here are five big questions heading into the tournament:

How can the Courage replace all that departed talent?

Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, all undisputed starters for the U.S. national team, departed the Courage in 2020. If that was not enough, Jaelene Daniels, perhaps the best left-back in the NWSL, surprisingly retired in her prime after the season. 

It goes without saying that filling such a massive void will be an incredibly tough challenge for Courage head coach Paul Riley. 

The Courage did well to get up-and-coming USWNT goalkeeper Casey Murphy in the Dunn trade, given the attacker was determined to move to Portland to be reunited with her husband – the head trainer for the Thorns.

Murphy will likely be busy this season, as Daniels and Dahlkemper’s absences will be tough to overcome in a defense that will rely even more on veteran stalwart Abby Erceg.

In attack there is still plenty left, led by MVP candidate Debinha, who is joined by Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald and Kristen Hamilton to form a still-formidable front line.

For Riley though, keeping the Courage near the top of the league will take every ounce of his coaching ability. 

Can the Dash keep it up?

Heading into 2020, the Houston Dash had never even made the NWSL playoffs. By the end of the (admittedly strange and disjointed) season, they had established themselves as an emerging league power. 

The Dash won the 2020 Challenge Cup and followed that up by winning three of their four Fall Series matches.

Houston will now look to build on that base of success to become a stalwart near the top of the table. 

Houston will return almost all of their key players and enjoy the benefit of having several of their most vital pieces, such as Megan Oyster, Katie Naughton and Shea Groom, sitting just outside the USWNT picture and therefore available through international breaks all season.

The same cannot be said, though, for Jane Campbell and Kristie Mewis, who have grown in stature for club and country in the past year. 

The Dash will again heavily rely on Rachel Daly in attack and hope to see Nichelle Prince add more goals to her game to complement the England international. 

How will the two 'new' teams fare?

The NWSL will see two teams in new cities in 2021: Kansas City, who were the Utah Royals last season and FC Kansas City three years before that, and Racing Louisville which is, much less confusingly, just an expansion franchise. 

Kansas City is primed to struggle and has perhaps the league’s weakest roster outside of Louisville.

Added to the challenge faced by new coach Huw Williams is the task of repairing a culture that was poisoned by former owner Dell Loy Hansen and former coach Craig Harrington, among other now-departed members of the Utah organization.  

Louisville is an unknown quantity, but the team does enter the league with some intriguing pieces. Highly-rated rookies Emily Fox and Emina Ekic could make a quick impact while proven talent like Yuki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill will be relied upon heavily. 

Still, barring an extraordinary coaching performance from Christy Holly, Louisville is going to look like an expansion team. That is to say: not good. 

How will the international break affect teams?

The NWSL raised some eyebrows by deciding to start the Challenge Cup right at the beginning of April’s international break, meaning teams will be without many of their stars for the beginning of the tournament. 

Friday’s nationally televised opener between Chicago and Houston – a rematch of the 2020 final – will feature two teams particularly decimated by international absences, which is unfortunate as it would have normally been a marquee matchup featuring some of the top American and Canadian players in the league. 

Most teams will see their international players miss just one game, but Orlando were scheduled to play two quick games, meaning they will be without the services of star forward Alex Morgan for both matches.

It is a difficult situation and as Morgan emphasized, it didn’t have to be this way. 

“I’m super bummed that the Challenge Cup is falling within a FIFA window because I think that NWSL had the opportunity to start outside a FIFA window in order for each team to have their entire roster,” Morgan said last month. 

How will teams approach the tournament?

There is no doubt that teams will be aiming to win the Challenge Cup, but there is also little question that the NWSL championship at season’s end is the bigger prize.

With this in mind, the approach of all 10 coaches could vary significantly.

When asked about the Challenge Cup last month, USWNT head coach (and former NWSL boss) Vlatko Andonovski referred to the competition as a “friendly tournament,” but it is unclear how many of his former colleagues will share the same outlook.

Though teams have been playing pre-season scrimmages, the chance to give untested players a chance to prove themselves against NWSL competition could prove invaluable come the regular season. But that could damage teams’ chances of winning the Challenge Cup at the same time.

It is a needle that teams will be looking to thread throughout the tournament.

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