The second annual National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup begins Friday with plenty of intrigue, a new expansion team and 15 Canadians in the mix.
The NWSL was the first North American professional sport to return during the COVID-19 pandemic last June with the inaugural Challenge Cup, then a round-robin tournament format held in a bubble environment in Salt Lake City.
This year’s edition will be much different.
First of all, the teams won’t be in one place, they’ll be travelling and fans will be allowed into select stadiums depending on local guidelines. The league’s 10 teams will be divided into East and West divisions of five teams, playing each team once — two home, two away. The division winners will meet in the championship game on May 8 (location still to be determined).
- North Carolina Courage
- Orlando Pride
- Racing Louisville FC
- Gotham City FC
- Washington Spirit
- Chicago Red Stars
- Houston Dash
- Kansas City
- Portland Thorns
- OL Reign
The tournament kicks off April 9 with a doubleheader, featuring a rematch of last year’s final between the reigning champion Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars and Kansas City NWSL (formerly Utah Royals) on the road versus Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns FC.
Racing Louisville FC makes its league debut April 10 as it hosts Orlando, which missed last year’s Challenge Cup due to COVID-19 cases within the club.
National team members for both Canada and the United States will miss the beginning of the tournament because of international friendlies in Europe.
Four games will air on the league’s broadcast partner, CBS Sports, and all games are streamed on Paramount+, formerly known as CBS All Access. The Challenge Cup is precursor to the NWSL’s regular season, which opens in mid-May and ends in October.
North Carolina Courage
Stars: Casey Murphy (GK, USA), Debinha (F, BRA), Lynn Williams (F, USA), Abby Erceg (FB, NZL)
Canadians to watch: Lindsay Agnew (FB, Kingston, ON)
Notes: First-round draft pick and Canadian international Deanne Rose (10th overall) will play her senior season with the University of Florida this spring and join the team at a later date. The Courage lost some key players in the off-season. The three biggest saw fullback Crystal Dunn moving to Portland in a three-team blockbuster trade and Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper joining Manchester City.
WATCH: How Deanne Rose conquered her senior year in a pandemic:
Stars: Alex Morgan (F, USA), Sydney Leroux (F), Marta (F, BRA), Ashlynn Harris (GK, USA), Ali Krieger (FB, USA)
Canadians to watch: Erin McLeod (GK, St. Albert, Alta)
Notes: McLeod was named to one of Canada’s 10 allocation spots, meaning those players’ salaries are paid by the federation. She’s also back in the national team mix for the first time in over two years. Harris and Krieger welcomed their first child this past February and are currently on a hiatus from international duty.
Racing Louisville FC
Stars: Yuki Nagasato (F, JPN), Savannah McCaskill (F)
Canadians to watch: None.
Note: Louisville took a chance in the expansion draft choosing American national team veterans Tobin Heath and Christen Press. Both are under contract with Manchester United, so whether they’ll don the lavender and midnight violet is still to be determined. Also, Australian internationals Alanna Kennedy (Tottenham) and Caitlyn Foord (Arsenal) are currently on loan overseas.
NY/NJ Gotham City FC (formerly Sky Blue FC)
Stars: Carli Lloyd (F, USA), Midge Purce (FB, USA), Nahomi Kawasumi (F, JPN)
Canadians to watch: Kailen Sheridan (GK, Whitby, ON), Evelyne Viens (F, L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que)
Notes: The team formerly known as Sky Blue FC will now be called Gotham City FC thanks to a rebrand announced earlier this week. Sheridan, the reigning NWSL Challenge Cup Gold Glove winner and team MVP, is out an indefinite period of time because of a torn quadricep, an injury she suffered while playing for Canada during the opening game at the SheBelieves Cup. She underwent successful surgery and is currently rehabbing, hoping to be back on target for the Tokyo Olympics. Viens earned her first caps at any level for Canada at the SheBelieves Cup and is coming off a loan to Paris FC where she scored 11 goals in 14 matches.
Stars: Kelley O’Hara (FB, USA), Emily Sonnett (FB, USA), Andi Sullivan (MF, USA)
Canadians to watch: Devon Kerr (GK, Barrie, ON)
Notes: Trinity Rodman, a striker and daughter of former NBA star Dennis, was chosen second overall in the 2021 NWSL college draft. Kerr, a dual citizen, has represented Canada and the U.S. at the youth international level.
Chicago Red Stars
Stars: Tierna Davidson (FB, USA), Julie Ertz (MF, USA), Casey Krueger (FB, USA), Alyssa Naeher (GK, USA), Mallory Pugh (F, USA)
Canadians to watch: Bianca St-Georges (FB, St. Felix de Valois, Que)
Notes: St-Georges had a breakout performance at last year’s Challenge Cup and is now an allocated player by Canada Soccer, meaning the organization pays her salary rather than the team. She picked up a knee injury during the pre-camp for the SheBelieves Cup, had surgery and is expected back for the NWSL regular season.
Stars: Rachel Daly (F, ENG), Jane Campbell (GK, USA), Kristie Mewis (MF, USA)
Canadians to watch: Allysha Chapman (FB, Courtice, ON), Nichelle Prince (F, Ajax, ON), Sophie Schmidt (MF, Abbotsford, B.C.), Maegan Kelly (F, Kansas City)
Notes: The reigning Challenge Cup champs Dash were perennial basement dwellers before a culture shift under coach James Clarkson turned the team into a side that’s hard to beat. Schmidt recently signed a two-year extension plus an option after a solid performance last season, while Chapman and Prince are also regular starters.
WATCH | Analyzing Canada’s performance at SheBelieves Cup:
Kansas City NWSL
Stars: Kate Bowen (MF, NZL), Rachel Corsie (D, SCO), Mariana Larroquette (F, ARG), Amy Rodriguez (F)
Canadians to watch: Jordyn Listro (MF, Toronto), Diana Matheson (MF, Oakville, ON), Desiree Scott (MF, Winnipeg), Victoria Pickett (MF, Newmarket, ON)
Notes: It’s a bit of a homecoming for Scott, who was part of the original Kansas City NWSL franchise. Listro was traded from Orlando to Kansas City in March. She went from being a trialist with the Pride to starting three of four games in the Fall Series. She earned her first caps with Canada at the recent SheBelieves Cup. Pickett was selected in the second round of the 2021 NWSL college draft after a successful career at the University of Wisconsin.
Stars: Crystal Dunn (FB, USA), Lindsey Horan (MF, USA), Becky Sauerbrunn (FB, USA), Sophia Smith (F, USA), Rocky Rodriguez (MF, CRC)
Canadians to watch: Christine Sinclair (F, Burnaby, B.C.)
Notes: The Fall Series champions and always competitive Thorns just got a whole lot tougher to beat thanks to the addition of Dunn in a three-team blockbuster deal. Dunn is a rare player, one who can be a tough, defensively minded wingback in one breath and in the next, make a dazzling move or two, beat defenders with her incredible pace and send deadly crosses in front of goal. Christine Sinclair, the team’s 37-year-old captain and international soccer’s all-time leading goal scorer, is coming off an injury that kept her out of the SheBelieves Cup. Longtime Thorn Tobin Heath, who is on loan to Manchester United, was taken by Racing Louisville FC during the expansion draft.
Stars: Megan Rapinoe (MF, USA), Rose Lavelle (MF, USA), Jess Fishlock (MF, Wales), Shirley Cruz (MF, CRC)
Canadians to watch: Quinn (MF/FB, Toronto)
Notes: Quinn, an allocated player for the first time since 2018, played for Sweden club, Vittsjio GIK, on a short loan this off-season. A member of Canada’s bronze-medal winning team at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Quinn, who plays multiple positions as a midfielder/defender, will be an asset in competing for selection on the Canadian team for Tokyo.