A Quick Guide To The NWSL To Prepare For Its Challenge Cup

The National Women’s Soccer League was the first American sports league to return during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns took to the pitch on Saturday and in the first match of the Challenge Cup. The month-long tournament in Utah includes 16 preliminary round matches — with seven of the league’s eight teams participating due to the Orlando Pride pulling out earlier this week — and a knockout tournament culminating in a championship game on July 26.

With no fans, extra substitutes, and socially distanced TV interviews, the games do look a bit different as the league hopes to keep all its players and staff healthy during the pandemic. All 22 starting players from the Courage and Thorns wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts and took a knee prior to kickoff on Saturday, continuing the nationwide protest against racial injustice and police brutality. The Courage won the game 2-1, thanks to Debinha’s glancing header off a Hailie Mace cross and a slick finish from Lynn Williams in the 94th minute.

A handful of players β€” including U.S. women’s national team stars Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, and Tobin Heath β€” have opted out of playing altogether, but fear not, there are still plenty of exciting teams and players to watch in Utah this summer. Here’s a quick guide to each team.

Chicago Red Stars

Best players: USWNT regulars Alyssa Naeher (GK), Julie Ertz (CB), and Tierna Davidson (CB) protect the back line of the Red Stars while central midfielder Morgan Brian controls the tempo. Look out for how they replace the scoring threat of Sam Kerr, the 2019 league MVP and Golden Boot winner who scored a league-high 18 goals last season and has since departed for Chelsea.

Jersey rating: 10/10. The Red Stars came out with one of the coolest kits in the league this year, and their jersey reveal campaign was even cooler. Inspired by the different neighborhoods that make up Chicago, the white secondary kit has the city flag on the front and skyline on the back made up of the names of city neighborhoods.

Why you should root for them: Last year, the team advanced to the NWSL Championship for the first time in the team’s history but fell to the Courage, 4-0. With some fresh attacking talent and an experienced defense, the Red Stars look to be an exciting team for years to come.

Houston Dash

Best players: Starting goalkeeper Jane Campbell is a solid keeper despite having had a bit of an up-and-down year last season, finishing fourth in the league for most saves but giving up 36 goals, the second-worst tally in the league. Fellow U.S. national Kristie Mewis and her girlfriend, England player Rachel Daly, control the midfield for the Dash.

Jersey rating: 9/10. These are fire, and not just because the primary kit is orange.

Why you should root for them: Last season, the Dash only managed a seventh-place finish and they lost attacking talents Sofia Huerta, Kelia Ohai, and Kyah Simon in the offseason. Questions certainly remain surrounding this team, specifically whether their defense will hold up against more potent attacking threats. The Dash have yet to make the playoffs in their six seasons in the league, but if you’re from the Texas area or you have a soft spot for teams that aren’t the worst but aren’t great either, then this team might be for you.

North Carolina Courage

Best players: The Courage are stacked with USWNT talent. With the lightning quick speed and skillful Crystal Dunn in midfield alongside Sam Mewis and Brazil’s Debinha, defensive stalwart Abby Dahlkemper, and Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams in attack, this team can be astoundingly good.

Jersey rating: 5/10. The navy primary kit and all-white secondary jersey could use some more spice but there’s nothing wrong with simplicity.

Why you should root for them: If you want to hop on a bandwagon, the reigning champions are your best bet. In the NWSL’s seven-year history, the team from NC has played in five of the last seven championship games. Few, if any, teams in the league can stack up against them at their best.

OL Reign

Best players: Rapinoe won’t be playing, but fellow USWNT midfielder Allie Long and 2019 Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcar will be. Former Houston player Sofia Huerta should also be an exciting addition to their midfield.

Jersey rating: 3/10. They look less like Seattle jerseys and more like knock-off OL Lyon jerseys.

Why you should root for them: The Reign has undergone some changes this offseason. After France’s OL Groupe — which owns the most successful club women’s team in history, Olympique Lyonnais β€” bought the Seattle-based team in March, the club name changed from Reign FC to OL Reign. Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski has departed to lead the USWNT after leading the team to the semifinals last season and the team is without Rapinoe, so some of these players may show up with something to prove.

Portland Thorns

Best players: There are so many! The team will be without Tobin Heath and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, but Christine Sinclair, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Lindsey Horan give you plenty of other options to root for.

Jersey rating: 10/10. Portland often has really awesome jerseys, but this year’s black kits with red rose detail are especially dope and really show off the spirit of the city. The secondary white jerseys are quite sleek as well.

Why you should root for them: The Thorns have long been one of the most popular teams in the NWSL with a passionate fanbase that has set multiple attendance records over the years. Two-time World Cup winner Sauerbrunn is finally at home in Portland, which should delight fans immensely, and the team has another international legend with Sinclair, the greatest player in Canadian history and the most prolific international scorer ever, leading the line.

Sky Blue FC

Best players: USWNT stars Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh will not be playing as they recover from injuries, so look out for forwards Imani Dorsey and Margaret “Midge” Purce, who was recently acquired from Portland.

Jersey rating: 7/10. I like the dark grey kit with the sky blue lightning bolt-esque lines running down the front! The club just released their new kit and the jersey sold out almost immediately, but fear not, they have been restocked.

Why you should root for them: Though Sky Blue FC have been a bit of a mess in the past (they finished eighth in the league last season), the team has undergone top-down changes in the offseason and even picked up USWNT up-and-comer Mallory Pugh. Though the team will likely struggle in the Challenge Cup without Pugh and Lloyd, they are still very much a club on the rise under new GM Alyssa LaHue and new coach Freya Coombe. And next season, they will play at Red Bull Arena, which will definitely make for a fun viewing experience.

Utah Royals

Best players: No Christen Press this summer, but look out for fellow USWNTers Kelley O’Hara and Amy Rodriguez.

Jersey rating: 8/10. The blue and yellow primary jersey is fun, with outlines of Utah mountains on the bottom but I’m not as huge a fan of the secondary kit with a bunch of grey crowns on the front.

Why you should root for them: The team finished in sixth place last season, and veteran striker and captain Rodriguez showed she still has it after scoring nine goals last season. Utah is of course the home team for this tournament, and boasts an exciting youthful group of players.

Washington Spirit

Best players: Andi Sullivan and Rose Lavelle, one of the USWNT’s best young talents, run the midfield for the Spirit while goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe tied for the most number of saves in the league last season with 86. Ashley Hatch and Jordan DiBiasi combined for six goals last year, and will look to provide the scoring spark for this team.

Jersey rating: 5/10. The blue primary kit is nice enough, although the CVS Pharmacy sponsor logo is curiously massive. The white secondary kit is a bit boring, although the Geico logo seems to be a normal size.

Why you should root for them: Rose Lavelle, need I say more? The 25-year-old took the world by storm in France last summer as the USWNT charged to their fourth World Cup win, and is such a mesmerizing player. The Spirit finished in fifth place last season, but has the talent to compete in Utah.