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Challenge Cup championship preview: no goals or seven goals nothing in between

Will this tournament go out with a bang?

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It really feels like the National Women’s Soccer League announced the Challenge Cup approximately 2 years ago, but in reality it hasn’t even been two months. That’s right, they officially announced it on May 27, which is strange since the date is currently something like March 163rd. And you know what? The tournament has, mostly, gone off without a hitch, which is huge cause for celebration. There was a lot of planning for when, not if, someone would test positive, but the bubble seems to have worked. Players certainly got stir crazy in their hotels, but they didn’t get sick. The games had good production values and a pretty high average level of excitement. Can we ask for any more during these strange summer days? In fact we probably only had a right to ask for less, far less. And yet the staff and the players delivered this little oasis of happiness. We had fun again, we had banter and memes, we had fundraisers, we felt together again. At a time when we are all being asked to stay apart, something that makes us feel a little less alone is a gift to cherish.

The Teams

On the one hand, I don’t think many people predicted a Houston Dash/Chicago Red Stars final. On the other hand, not many predictions were going to work because between offseason roster changes, the sudden tournament format, no real preseason to speak of, and the general stress of COVID-19 and a massive civil rights movement in support of Black lives, no one was going to be close to peak condition. Not even the Courage, although they were pretty close.

The Houston Dash perhaps overperformed compared to expectations while the Red Stars underperformed, but once again, the tournament format and the wicked heat in Herriman took their toll on the prepared and unprepared alike. The Red Stars in particular look like their gas light is on and pinging insistently, so the difference might come down to minutes management and who has the freshest legs off the bench. In that respect, it might be Houston.

Challenge Cup seminifinal heat maps from the winning teams

Against Portland, we can see that Houston relied a lot on pulling the game wide, with Nichelle Prince attempting multiple crosses, as well as a trying to play through for Rachel Daly. Meanwhile, Chicago sat off of Sky Blue for large portions of their semifinal, with much of that red area on the map coming from having to contain Ifeoma Onumonu.

Still, a lot of Chicago’s team leaders have a lot of minutes piled up on their legs; Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Kealia Watt all have over 400 minutes over five games, while Danny Colaprico, Savannah McCaskill, and Casey Short aren’t too far behind. Additionally, Casey Short was a late scratch ahead of the semifinal due to a “minor injury” in practice the day before. Perhaps this will work in their favor, with Short coming into the final almost completely rested. But if the injury isn’t so minor, once again she might find herself with limited minutes or not even dressed for the game.

Not that Houston is much better as Katie Naughton, Kristie Mewis, and Rachel Daly have over 500 minutes over six games, with Shea Groom and Allysha Chapman on serious minutes as well. The key here could be that Nichelle Prince is relatively rested, and she’s positioned to keep attacking that tired Chicago left side. Houston’s injury list isn’t as extensive as Chicago’s either, poor Megan Oyster’s ribs notwithstanding, and if it comes down to grinding out a result, you’re probably better off betting on Houston here.

So who knows; we may get a wild 4-3 game here because no one can be arsed to do any defending, or we may get a 0-0 and penalties, because no one can be arsed to do any attacking. What’s clear is that everyone is tired, and after the tournament, they all deserve to sleep 16 hours a day for a week.

One key player for Chicago: Savannah McCaskill

One key player for Houston: Shea Groom

Schedule, TV, and Streaming info

Sunday, July 26
12:30 PM ET / 9:30 AM PT
Live on CBS
Streaming on Twitch for international viewers
Sign up and watch on fubo
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