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Challenge Cup roundup week 4: ready for regular season

Great goals from teams that look warmed up and ready for regular season.

Chicago Red Stars v OL Reign - NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Well! NWSL always manages to deliver a fun twist or two. Or depending on your team allegiance, an incredibly frustrating and hair-pulling 90 minutes. The one good thing across the board here is that all the teams look like they’ve benefited from the first few weeks of Challenge Cup-slash-preseason. Everyone looks more put together and like they might have some kind of game plan, even if they’re not executing it. At the very least, everyone looks like a team that has gotten a few games under their belt, and that should help the regular season get out of the gate at a good clip.

Racing Louisville 2 - 3 North Carolina Courage

Poor Louisville. They’re not a disaster as some might have feared before they began playing, but they’ve struggled this Challenge Cup to find some kind of purchase. They’ve gone from a 2-2 tie against Orlando to losing two in a row now to the Spirit and the Courage. The good news is they were narrow losses and in this game against the Courage, they showed fight nearly to the end, keeping it level until a disheartening own goal. Getting level was particularly good for a team that got out-shot, out-crossed, and generally out-attacked by their opponent. There was also a particularly bright spot for Louisville as Jorian Baucom got on the scoresheet to nab her first NWSL goal with her first touch. They’ve also got some young players doing really interesting things, from Emina Ekic working on her 1-v-1 attacking to Emily Fox being given quite a lot of freedom to roam forward.

Baucom said that head coach Christy Holly told her that another one was coming when she ran to the bench to celebrate. “Keep putting yourself in those spaces behind the back line,” she said. “I love getting into the box, and we just knew a second one was coming and unfortunately it didn’t go our way, but I think when most people look at us, you wouldn’t think we’re an expansion team coming in.”

Louisville’s certainly not hopeless, far from it. In fact this result was possibly more edifying for Courage fans, who have seen their team score a whopping 9 goals in three games but still not look entirely in control. It’s the classic application of Paul Riley’s “if they score four we’ll score five” philosophy but with a dose of chaos mixed in.

Kansas City 1 - 3 Houston Dash

The good times keep a-rollin’ for Kristie Mewis, who, along with other returning international players, gave Houston the oomph they needed to finally pull out a win, and with some style.

It wasn’t the highest-tempo game, the action coming in sprints, although some of that was surely down to KC looking a bit tentative. In their attack they would let the Dash recover, and in defense Houston kept getting in behind them.

“We needed more possession with a purpose,” said Huw Williams after the game. “More possession by beating their lines. Our possession was safe, our possession was conservative in the first half. And we need to break lines. I thought we were able to break lines, at times, from the center back position dribbling. Kate Del Fava I thought did very well, was actually dangerous first when she attacked. But the connection and the fluidity of our ball movement and player rotations in midfield needs to be a little bit sharper.”

Washington Spirit 0 - 0 Gotham FC

This really was a game the Spirit should have won. They were inefficient with their shooting, with a little dash of bad luck for good measure. They had the better of the attacking opportunities and were often able to penetrate Gotham right through the middle, while simultaneously controlling or neutralizing Carli Lloyd. Gotham did get a little pick-me-up when they were able to introduce McCall Zerboni, who’s been recovering from a back injury, but they struggled for sustained possession and got pulled this way and that in the midfield.

“I think the first half our pressing wasn’t as effective so they were able to stretch us out in our midfield,” said defender Gina Lewandowski after the game. “And we got tired easily so when we got the ball we weren’t able to keep it as well. But we talked about it at halftime, and we figured out a way to go into the second half and have our pressing a little bit better and more effective so we can save our legs and try to prevent that penetrating ball into midfield. But as you saw, they still were very effective and dangerous but yeah I think we collapsed very well in the defense and was able to stop it with Didi [Haracic].”

OL Reign 3 - 2 Chicago Red Stars

If you’re a Tziarra King fan, then this game was for you. If you’re a Chicago Red Stars fan, maybe no need to watch this replay, two goals notwithstanding. How many Chicago chances went begging? More than once a ball literally rolled right across the face of goal with two or three people a few feet away, helpless to do anything but not get there in time. The Red Stars also had a rough game defensively - slightly unexpected, given their defense has been what’s kept them in it in previous Challenge Cup games. On the positive side, Mal Pugh had 66 minutes and got a goal, showing that there’s a strong path forward for her to be 100% during the regular season.

“I think we’re doing big things right for the most part, as a defensive line, and I think as an attack we really saw that come together, this game,” said Tierna Davidson after the game. “But, you know, there are definitely details that we need to get right in the backline, you know, just knowing where we want each other, stepping at the right time, communicating the proper way, making the right decisions. And, you know that’ll come as we play more games, but we definitely are going to be trying to those things to make sure that we can tighten it up in the back.”

As for the Reign, they dominated through flank play. Sure, they had a slow start and Chicago seemed to have all the early momentum, but the team that can build back up over the course of 90 is the one that’s more likely to go the distance. Also: Tziarra King.