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Something to like about every team at the NWSL Challenge Cup so far

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Let’s say something nice about everyone before half the teams exit the tournament.

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Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-NC Courage vs Portland Thorns Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

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This weekend, we’ll be saying goodbye to half the teams at the NWSL Challenge Cup. I’ve enjoyed something about watching every single one of them, so let’s appreciate that before we lose the opportunity to watch them until next March.

In order of their group stage standings:

1. North Carolina Courage — Not taking anything for granted

Everyone knew that the Courage was the best team in NWSL coming into the tournament, and it’s delivered with four victories. But the thing I really appreciated was Paul Riley choosing to field his strongest available lineup after his team had clinched the No. 1 seed. Many expected heavy rotation against Sky Blue FC, but North Carolina has decided to take every game seriously.

The Courage’s biggest competitors Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars — both last season and historically — sit near the bottom after heavily rotating throughout the group stage. Soon, we’ll see who had the better strategy. But regardless of whether it was smart, I enjoyed the Courage’s approach.

2. Washington Spirit — Commitment to its principles

Even when it rotated heavily, and even when it came up against the Courage, the Washington Spirit maintained a steadfast commitment to building patiently out of the back.

In the case of the Courage game, it got them pressed into oblivion and massively outplayed. Washington’s fullbacks struggled to pick the right passes in the first half of the Portland match too. But I think the Spirit got better as a team for those struggles, and second-year left back Tegan McGrady, in particular, started to look more comfortable as the group stage went on.

Houston Dash might not be the same quality of opponent as NC, but the Spirit still managed to make Houston chase shadows, wear out its forwards, and prevent it from creating any chances by keeping the ball. I’m not sure Washington would have been as good at that in the Houston game if it hadn’t stuck to its guns in the previous matches.

3. OL Reign — How about Stephanie Cox!

Last year, an injury crisis forced assistant coach Stephanie Cox into the OL Reign lineup after three years out of professional soccer. She performed so well that she remained on the roster for this season, and she’s been arguably Reign’s best performer at the Challenge Cup.

She’s not just been a good defender, but very active getting up and down the left flank, and she’s completing more passes into dangerous areas than her midfielders are. Cox isn’t just good for someone who came out of a three-year retirement, she’s a genuinely good NWSL left back.

4. Houston Dash — Bringing the attitude

For years, Houston has been a team that always just looked... flat. But the additions of Shea Groom, Katie Naughton, Megan Oyster and Katie Stengel seem to have inspired the returning Dash players to lift their level of intensity on the field.

This is, of course, an extremely subjective thing, and I’m not accusing anyone of not trying previously. But the way someone like Groom presses and throws herself into every challenge is infectious, and I think her presence, in particular, has lifted Rachel Daly’s game.

It’s not a great sign that the Dash dropped off in its final two Challenge Cup matches, but I also think James Clarkson’s lineups against Sky Blue and Spirit were a bit more experimental than his previous ones, and we’ll see a better showing from Houston in the quarterfinals.

5. Utah Royals — Establishing the 3-5-2

Without Christen Press, the Royals were never going to have a chance to win this tournament. She’s was one of the best forwards in the world in 2019 and the Royals were built around her making magic happen. But new head coach Craig Harrington has done a good job laying down the foundation for a system that suits his team — including Press — and preparing for next season.

Having a pair of athletic outside center backs who can dribble forward on either side of Rachel Corsie should extend her career. A system that relies more on direct counter-attacks than possession should save Vero Boquete from having to press too much, extending her career too. And a future partnership of Amy Rodriguez and Press in this system should score plenty of goals. I’m excited to see what it looks like after Harrington’s had an offseason to bring in some other supporting pieces.

6. Chicago Red Stars — Focus on fitness and development

I expected the Red Stars to post better results in this tournament, and I’m sure everyone else did too. But Chicago is also the team that can be happiest about the development of its young players, and how many quality minutes it got to evaluate them. Kayla Sharples and Ella Stevens, in particular, were probably a bit better than any outsiders expected.

Rory Dames is going to have some difficult decisions about who to protect in the upcoming expansion draft, with the Red Stars likely to lose players to Louisville. The group stage probably gave him a better idea of who needs to be protected and who can be risked.

It also looks like Chicago has a fully fit team heading into the knockout stage, while North Carolina and Washington both have lost players to injuries, and have others who haven’t rested.

7. Sky Blue FC — Ifeoma Onumonu has worked her butt off

For the first time in her career, Ifeoma Onumonu is getting a chance to be a team’s dedicated center forward, and she’s making the most of it. She performed well last season with OL Reign, but Sky Blue is much more built around her ability to play with her back to goal, hold the ball up, and setting up her fellow attackers to run into the space she vacated.

Onumonu’s assist in the win over Houston was her big highlight, but her movement and work rate are what’s enabling Sky Blue to relieve pressure and establish itself higher up the field against opponents that have better settled rosters and tactics. Here’s her touches map against North Carolina.

Opta via NWSL

And here’s all her events — passes, dribbles, shots, and defensive actions.

Opta via NWSL

Onumonu is everywhere. She never stops moving and never stops trying to support her teammates, in every phase of play. It’s great to have a No. 9 who’s a pure goal-scorer, but depending on the players you have around her, it might be even better to have one who’s this selfless. She’s going to help Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh score a lot of goals next season.

8. Portland Thorns — Christine Sinclair is a machine

The Thorns are in last place for a reason. Portland struggled to create chances and couldn’t win a game. But the 37-year-old Sinclair was out there running her tail off in every game, starting all four and going the full 90 twice. At no point did she look like she had any fitness concerns. Anyone predicting that Sinclair is going to hang up her cleats after the Olympics might be re-thinking that take, because she does not look anything like someone who’s ready to wind down her career.

Portland has to figure out how to create better chances, and obviously Sinclair bears some responsibility for the Thorns’ final third struggles. But she still looks extremely capable of being part of the solution, rather than someone on her way out. More Sinc goals and assists should be on the way next season.

Challenge Cup quarterfinal schedule (all times ET)

Courage vs. Thorns — Friday, 12:30 p.m.

Dash vs. Royals — Friday, 10 p.m.

Spirit vs. Sky Blue — Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

Reign vs. Red Stars — Saturday, 10 p.m.

All games are on CBS All Access.