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NWSL Challenge Cup week 1 recap: already hectic!

It’s been a long preseason, they said. It might be a slow start, they said.

Kansas City v Portland Thorns Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It’s been a long preseason so bust out your shorts and your allergy medication, because we made it and the Challenge Cup is here! Every team was hit with a combination of the injury and FIFA window sticks, some more than others, so a lot of fans went into this weekend with a big dose of manage-your-expectations. And in a way that was the correct angle to take, but also, if you thought things would probably get chaotic because this is NWSL, you were also right! If you missed all the action this weekend, here’s a roundup of all the action.

Houston Dash 0 - 0 Chicago Red Stars

As much as this game was hyped as a rematch between Challenge Cup foes from last year, the opener for this year’s CC ended up being a bit of a snoozer. The first half was somewhat promising but by the second half, the game had settled into a low-key struggle. There were brilliant moments from both teams - think an early beautiful cross floated in by Kealia Watt, or an incredible second-half pass from Katie Stengel that curled right around the defensive line and into the feet of Veronica Latsko - but mostly this felt like two teams feeling out their strategies for the season.

“We felt they were trying to force us to play down the left hand side,” said Houston head coach James Clarkson after the game. “And, you know, we didn’t do a good enough job in first half of identifying that and solving that issue. And I felt we reversed it. And then we forced them to play down their left hand side second half, and I thought we got some success and you know that there were some really good transitional moments.”

Portland Thorns 2 - 1 KC Woso

If Houston-Chicago was a snoozer, Portland-KC was the three shots of espresso you chug to stay up for an all nighter. Sure, there was a fight at the end that resulted in four cards in a row as well as a red card for Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, but we would be extremely remiss not to discuss all the goals, because they were all great. Rocky Rodríguez got on the board, her first home goal for the Thorns, Tyler Lussi had a floating header, and Amy Rodriguez opened up the account for KC Woso, which feels extremely apt given her history with Kansas City. Also of note: Meghan Klingenberg in the 8, absolutely eating up the midfield and looking like she was having fun doing it, and KC already looking better than expected.

After the game, Klingenberg had strong words for the refereeing. “I think the players deserve you know, quality refereeing and quality accountability. When it comes to these matches, I want my players safe. I want the other players on the other team safe as well. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” she said. “You don’t get to tell me that the players aren’t the best in the world on this field. They are and now we need to make sure that everything else is best in the world on these fields, as well.”

NC Courage 3 - 2 Washington Spirit

What didn’t this game have. It looked like the Courage might get to have their way, pulling away 3-1 from the Spirit after Kumi Yokoyama’s early goal for Washington. And they did often look like the more dominant team on the pitch, taking advantage of the Spirit’s high press at times and slipping in behind. Even fullback Merritt Mathias got in on the action with a run behind, chipping Aubrey Bledsoe in the 52’. But Trinity Rodman, in her debut game, scored this absolute beauty to get the Spirit back in it.

The run, the first touch, the finish. The epitome of chef kiss. Rodman did at times look like the rookie she is, at one point getting the ball taken off her by Debinha when she took too long to make a decision. But she’ll learn; head coach Richie Burke said that Rodman has already improved from preseason games to her debut. Rodman herself said after the game she’s definitely working on matching the speed of play. “I think that’s a huge part of what’s helped me in the game is just being able to check my shoulder really fast and know what I’m going to do before I get the ball,” she said.

Racing Louisville FC 2 - 2 Orlando Pride

It was a clash of two teams who aren’t in the full swing of things, but sometimes that can be more fun than watching two titans go at loggerheads. The game was complicated by the local weather, which saw heavy rain absolutely drenching the players for one half, to the point of players comically wringing out their jerseys just to feel more comfortable running around. But the weather cleared up and the game produced late-minute drama, with Orlando’s Abi Kim scoring a beauty to put them up 2-1, only to have Brooke Hendrix equalize off of a free kick.

Up to that point, though, both of these teams definitely had their struggles. Both teams’ defenses certainly looked like all the pieces still weren’t in sync, particularly with Orlando’s Phoebe McClernon and Konya Plummer getting split and torched early on by Cece Kizer on her goal in the 12’. But they adjusted, as did other players. You can see already that a lot of what Louisville wants to do will turn on Savannah McCaskill, while Orlando pivots around Meggie Dougherty Howard.

After the game, Orlando defender Ali Riley said that the combo of the weather and Louisville’s very thick grass playing surface impacted their play. “It definitely affected the game. Of course, they’re experiencing the same thing but the slipping. Oh, as a defender you hate to see it.”

That’s all for this week of games. What were your favorite moments? What’s making you look forward to the rest of the NWSL year? Let us know in the comments!