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Takeaways from the NWSL Challenge Cup

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Teams wanted to win, but they also wanted to take this chance to learn and develop for next year.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Despite not having the steadiest performance, the Houston Dash walked away as winners of the NWSL Challenge Cup. They perhaps set the bar a little too high with their first two preliminary round games, exhibiting a fun and fast style that couldn’t realistically last on a tournament schedule in the brutal Utah heat. And it didn’t - but the Dash also kept to their game plan, defended consistently, didn’t pick up a lot of injuries, and managed their minutes. And somewhere in there, they navigated their way to the championship over the Chicago Red Stars.

A tournament like this one can be a hard thing to judge. Of course every team wants to win, but given the circumstances, a lot of them had more long-term goals than just coming home with a trophy. So in that sense, there really aren’t “losers” here because a lot of these teams had internal goals to help them prep for 2021, counting wins or trophies as incidental. Winning still mattered; you don’t get groups of people this competitive who literally play a game for a living without wanting to win. But getting knocked out of the tournament still sent teams home with a good chunk of data, lots of game footage, and things to think over in the coming offseason.

There’s been some rumbling that the league wants to put together more games in the fall; not another tournament, but perhaps something smaller scale and more regional. Less travel, fewer costs, probably easier on bodies than a tourno schedule. Assuming it can be done safely, it’s not a bad idea. But until then, this is what teams have to work with before any draft or new season.

The winners

The Houston Dash were not, at times, the most exciting team in the tournament. But they also demonstrated they can play fun attacking soccer. And most importantly, they got good performances out of their core group when they needed them, or else they were able to cover for when someone in the core was getting played out of the game. Shea Groom in particular has found a groove with this team, and given a full season she and Rachel Daly could certainly rack up some goal and assist stats.

Got what they needed

Sky Blue FC

It was an ultra wobbly start for Sky Blue, who didn’t quite seem to know what to do with their midfield. But by the end of the tournament the Cudjoe-Zerboni-Woldmoe trio had become quite effective, forcing teams out of the middle of the park and setting up Ifeoma Onumonu. They also quite sharply illustrated that they need at least one, if not two quality strikers, another consistent center back, and that the Midge Purce fullback experiment either needs a lot more work or that it should probably come to a close. But overall, this was a team that was able to implement a consistent attacking style. Defensively - well, see above re: another consistent center back.

Utah Royals

The Royals were a team that came out to see if they could implement a revamped style. There were some eyebrows over Craig Harrington’s 3-5-2 but it became clear that the Royals were there to test the viability of the formation and get used to holding their shape defensively while being able to engage on the flanks and play off of Amy Rodriguez. But just like many teams, they needed a finisher, and there were probably a lot of Royals fans daydreaming about Christen Press in the box with her head up, available for that A-Rod ball.

Washington Spirit

The Spirit also fell into the category of “there to play team soccer,” in that they were clearly working on some stuff in preparation for 2021. Did it help that Rose Lavelle was on limited minutes and Andi Sullivan tore her meniscus mid-tournament? No it did not. But there were several other players who got plentiful, meaningful minutes, players who will almost certainly be key to future Spirit performances, particularly Paige Nielsen, but also Ashley Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama.

Back to the drawing board

Portland Thorns

The Thorns managed three goals in six games. They didn’t have Lindsey Horan available as often as they needed, and yet she also somehow played too much. There were some nice minutes for Simone Charley and Morgan Weaver, who has definitely earned further consideration, but Portland’s build out of the back and relatively slow midfield aren’t translating into dangerous goalscoring opportunities.

OL Reign

It looks like it’s been a difficult start for new Reign head coach Farid Benstiti. They weren’t quite rearranging deck chairs, but there was a certain aura of shuffling the ball around just to shuffle without much to show for it. Sure, just about everyone hit a wall when it came to scoring, but the Reign got one (1) goal in five games. Ceci n’est pas un but?

Chicago Red Stars

They were definitely tough, but toughness only carries you so far under these conditions, and combined with the Red Stars’ terribly bad luck with injuries, they got worn down early and never got a chance to catch their breath. Things might have been differing with Yuki Nagasato and Casey Short fully available, but they weren’t, and the Red Stars increasingly relied on sitting back and trying to pick their moments. Unfortunately, in the end, Houston brought the moments to them.

Doing their own Courage thing

Let’s be real, the NC Courage never show up not to win. They might have lost to the Thorns after whiffing all their chances, but the Thorns had to give every last shred of energy and ability they had left to do it. Over the course of a regular season, this kind of loss would average out, but unfortunately for them it came in knockouts. They’ll be fine.

Honorable mention

Orlando Pride

How can we leave without mentioning the Orlando Pride, who for a while seemed to be the actual most influential team in this tournament via their #PrideStan curse?

An extra round of appreciation here for the Pride, who turned what could have been a really demoralizing situation into a fun way to get fans excited (and in some cases, extremely anxious about whether curses are real) and keep themselves in the spotlight along with the other teams.

Honestly, the only real losers here might be the NWSL fanbase who now have their fight or flight response activated by the phrase “five dollar footlong.”