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Challenge Cup 2021: schedule, how to watch, and big storylines

The Challenge Cup is back to kick off the 2021 season

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2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship

The NWSL Challenge Cup is right around the corner! If you’re trying to shake off offseason hibernation or you’re just new to NWSL, here’s a guide to getting the most out of watching the Challenge Cup.

Schedule:

Tournament runs April 9 - May 8

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Championship: Saturday, May 8, 1 PM ET

How to watch:

Games will air or stream on a mix of CBS, CBS Sports Network, Twitch, and Paramount+.

If you already had CBS All Access, your account should have switched over to Paramount+. Most of the CC games will stream domestically on Paramount+, and all games will stream internationally on Twitch.

CBSSN games:
Friday, April 9 | Houston Dash vs Chicago Red Stars
Wednesday, April 14 | Orlando Pride vs Gotham FC
Wednesday, April 21 | Portland Thorns vs OL Reign
Saturday, May 1 | NC Courage vs Orlando Pride

The championship will air on CBS at a venue TBD.

Storylines to watch:

There are obviously two new teams joining NWSL this season: Kansas City and Racing Louisville. Kansas City has perhaps the slightly less uphill climb, given they inherited a chunk of the defunct Utah Royals’ roster. But they’re still an unknown under head coach Huw Williams, recent 3-0 preseason win over Kansas State University notwithstanding.

As for Racing Louisville, they are simply one enormous question mark. Their roster might have veteran beacons in Michelle Betos and Yuki Nagasato, but they recently announced they had to sign five trialists in order to complete their roster, and the way they seem to have structured things with only four midfielders listed makes one think that someone in the forward group is going to be asked to fill in some strange gaps.

Other teams on the rebuild this season are the Orlando Pride, Gotham FC (formerly Sky Blue), and to a certain extent, the Washington Spirit. You might be tempted to throw the North Carolina Courage in there given they lost best-player-in-the-world candidate Crystal Dunn, but they have plenty of returning core players and Paul Riley is usually one to be able to wring the best out of those he handpicks to suit his style.

Meanwhile, there’s big expectation for the Portland Thorns - they picked up the aforementioned Crystal Dunn last October, on top of previously adding Becky Sauerbrunn and 2020 #1 draft pick Sophia Smith. When you can list Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair in one midfield, there had better be expectations.

And of course, Houston Dash fans will be hoping for a repeat. The Dash gave it their all in the original Challenge Cup and none of the teams really expected it would become a repeating event. But just because it was a one off under emergency circumstances doesn’t mean the team or their fans don’t value that trophy. That win and the ensuing celebrations were like a giant fuel injection into the fanbase, and if the club wins again, they’ll almost certainly want to leverage those vibes into gaining more momentum off the field.

In the end, of course every team wants to win, but some of them may treat the CC as more of a run-up to the regular season than others. It’s honestly a good lower-stakes way to get everyone some minutes and bridge preseason to the full season, assuming everyone stays healthy.

Games to watch in week 1:

We won’t try to predict what games will get hot later in the tournament; after all, as the last one taught us, anything can happen. But for the first week of games, here are a few matchups that could make for good entertainment.

Houston Dash vs. Chicago Red Stars
Friday, April 9, 8:30 PM ET

Kicking off the Challenge Cup with the two teams who went to the final game in last year’s CC sprinkles a little bit of spice on proceedings from the jump. The Dash eliminated Chicago 2-0 last time, and the two haven’t had a chance to clash since then, since the 2020 fall series kept teams competing regionally.

Racing Louisville vs Orlando Pride
Saturday, April 10, 7 PM ET

Louisville’s debut! Given Orlando’s record, it’s not necessarily the most intense trial by fire, but Christy Holly will still be asking his young, untried team to take on a roster with Marta and Alex Morgan. And as mentioned above, the Pride have done a partial rebuild with some interesting trades, as well as getting back the services of fullback Ali Riley after last year was a complete wash for her in terms of staying Stateside.

Chicago Red Stars vs Portland Thorns
Thursday, April 15, 7:30 PM ET

Chicago/Portland games can be exciting 4-4 goalfests or 0-0 grinds. From recent head-to-head, Portland has the upper hand in results. These are both teams that can play with verve but can also resort to a little bit of bullying on the ball, and they both have coaches that have imprinted their style on a strong returning core of players.