NWSL Challenge Cup Recap: Matchday 1

Soccer was officially back in the United States as the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup got underway today in Utah. Let’s take a look at the tournament’s opening doubleheader, a pair of 2-1 results.

North Carolina Courage 2, Portland Thorns 1

In the first professional soccer match in the United States since the pandemic shut down the sport, the North Carolina Courage picked up where they left off as the two-time reigning champs won the NWSL Challenge Cup opener.

The first half was controlled by North Carolina as Crystal Dunn, Debinha, and Lynn Williams pressed the ball forward, with the latter having some chances to open her account go by the wayside.

After  70+ minutes of scoreless play, Hallie Mace, who replaced injured substitute Ally Watt, crossed the ball in for a Debinha headed goal. The diminutive Brazilian was electric all day, driving at defenders and trying to create in the final third.

Lindsey Horan, who very well may have been the best player on the pitch, almost equalized with a header shortly after. But, after hitting the post earlier, her shot went off the crossbar. Fortunately for Portland, Stephanie Labbe couldn’t get the ball away from the goal, and substitute Simone Charley tapped the ball in amidst the chaos.

It only made sense for the Courage’s top scorer from last season to find the winner in this one. A pinpoint cross from Sam Mewis connected with a lightly-marked Lynn Williams and she nodded it home for the stoppage-time winner.

Overall, there was some expected fatigue and some defensive lapses, but the match was competitive and really opened up in the second half between two of the favorites in this tournament.

Quick Kicks

  • During a saxophone rendition of the national anthem, both starting lineups and most players and coaches on each sideline took a knee in solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement. Sam Mewis mentioned postmatch how important it is for them to highlight that during this tournament. This moment will have set the tone for the entire NWSL Challenge Cup.
  • A couple of noteworthy selections in the starting lineup for this one as Paul Riley gave rookie Addisyn Merrick her debut on the NC backline and Mark Parsons elected to start Bella Bixby in goal ahead of Britt Eckerstrom.
  • Discussing another rookie, Riley mentioned that Watt’s knee injury doesn’t look good. She had to be stretchered off shortly after subbing onto the match.

Player of the Match: Debinha

Especially in the first 45 minutes, she was taking the ball from the midfield and looking to pick out teammates making runs. While she didn’t see as much time dribbling the ball in the second half, her movement and vision allowed her to head home the opening goal. As NC head coach Paul Riley said post-match, “Debinha, best player on the pitch for me.”

Washington Spirit 2, Chicago Red Stars 1

It didn’t take long for one of the tournament’s biggest stars to breakthrough. Washington midfielder Rose Lavelle played a beautiful ball through to Ashley Hatch. But, after the striker’s shot was blocked, Lavelle pounced on the rebound and smashed home the opening goal.

She would have a chance to double the lead and secure a brace, but Alyssa Naeher came up with a big 1-v-1 save.

A miscue from Naeher would cost Chicago early in the second half. She was a bit too casual with her touch on a back pass and lost the ball to Hatch, who knocked in the second Spirit goal. The Red Stars pulled one back as a deflection set up Morgan Gautrat (Brian) to slot the ball home past 2019 Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe.

Washington continued to push numbers forward, but they were unable to find a third goal to really put things away. But, it was the Red Stars getting the best chance as Bledsoe made a massive save to keep the scoreline at 2-1.

Considered one of the NWSL clubs that could take the next step this season, the Spirit definitely looked the part in their opening match win.

Quick Kicks

  • A powerful moment before the match as Julie Ertz and Casey Short emotionally embraced as they kneeled during the national anthem.
  • Ashley Sanchez had some really exciting moments, driving at defenders, but she also hesitated to shoot a few times and gave the ball away. But, despite those rookie mistakes, she showcased what she can bring to this club in the very near future.
  • We saw the first quadruple substitution in the competition from Washington in the second half.
  • As expected, Chicago really looked like they missed NWSL all-time leading scorer Sam Kerr, who left for Chelsea this offseason. There were a lot of crosses and cutbacks to the middle of the box that went unreceived by Rachel Hill or other players in the area. In the postgame press conference, head coach Rory Dames detailed that it was a lack of players, not just the striker, getting into the box and also not getting a lot of training on that but rather more on building relationships and width.

Player of the Match: Rose Lavelle

The USWNT star midfielder was running the show in the first half for Washington. Early on, she set up Hatch before blasting home the rebound for the first Spirit goal. She looked in midseason form as she zoomed around the pitch, dribbling around defenders, playing balls through to the forwards.

Carson A Merk

Reporting live from Sin City, I have covered both RGVFC and Las Vegas Lights FC since their inceptions. I also write profiles to highlight players from the NCAA to USL to NWSL and everywhere in between.