The National Women’s Soccer League is poised to make its return this weekend, marking the first professional sports league to return since the coronavirus pandemic halted the sports world back in mid-March.
Like their male counterparts in Major League Soccer, the NWSL will resume in a tournament-style play with the NWSL Challenge Cup in Salt Lake City, Utah. The tournament will utilize the facilities of the Utah Royals (NWSL), Real Monarchs (USL) and Real Salt Lake (MLS).
The action begins on Saturday, June 27, when defending NWSL champion North Carolina Courage take on the Portland Thorns at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The opening match is one of just two matches that will be broadcast on network television, with the other being the final on July 26.
How it works
The tournament begins with all squads playing in four preliminary contests. Following the preliminary rounds, teams will be placed into a seeded bracket to determine their quarterfinal opponents.
There will be no extra time in the NWSL Challenge Cup. Should a game remain tied after 90 minutes in the knockout stage of the tournament, both teams will participate in a penalty kick shootout with the winning team moving on.
As is the case in the men’s game, NWSL clubs will be granted five substitutions each game in the tournament in an effort to alleviate fatigue and eliminate soft tissue injuries.
You can read more in-depth about the tournament rules here.
Who could win?
In the NWSL’s brief seven-year history, the North Carolina Courage has been involved in five of the league’s seven championship games. The Courage also has back-to-back NWSL championships to its name, so it’s likely to think North Carolina will be a team to watch in this tournament. Led by head coach Paul Riley, the defending NWSL champions are stacked with talent. The Courage boasts the likes of United States Women’s National Team mainstays such as Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn and Samatha Mewis.
Boasting the second most USWNT player is the Chicago Red Stars. The Windy City’s blend of youth and experience could lead the team to victory in the NWSL Challenge Cup. Captain Julie Ertz leads Chicago to Utah and she’s coming with reinforcements. Casey Short, Danielle Colaprico and newly-acquired Kealia Ohai power a hungry Red Stars squad looking for revenge after falling to the aforementioned Courage in the NWSL championship last season.
Don’t discount the Portland Thorns. The powerhouse club out of the Pacific Northwest will be without Tobin Health, who is sitting out the tournament due to coronavirus concerns, but the side has plenty of star power to compete. Lindsey Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn provide the USWNT star power but fans of the sport will notice Canadian striker Christine Sinclair scoring the majority of the goals for Portland. The Thorns are one of the older teams in the tournament and may challenge for the title if the Courage or Red Stars slip up.
Players to watch
The Red Stars have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at the striker position in the last several seasons. Christen Press, Sam Kerr and now Kealia Ohai have all held the distinction of being a striker in the Windy City.
Looking for a new start, Ohai, wife of NFL star J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, joined Chicago earlier this year after coming over from the Houston Dash prior to the NWSL Draft. She brings a dynamic look to a Red Stars attack that must replace world-class Australian striker Sam Kerr after her departure to Chelsea at the end of 2019 season. The NWSL Challenge Cup presents a good litmus test for Ohai as she looks to blend in with her new team and take the Red Stars to the final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
OL Reign midfielder Sofia Huerta is another player to watch and comes into the tournament with an ax to grind. The 28 year old is still at the top of her game but looking to make an impact for her new team since coming over from Houston in the offseason. The forme U.S. international would like nothing more than to reemerge as strong midfield option for national team coach Vlatko Andonovski as the Lady Yanks look toward international competition once the coronavirus has been remedied.
How to watch
The tournament begins Saturday at 12:30 p.m. with games streaming on CBS, CBS All-Access and Twitch (for viewers outside of the U.S.)
Click here for the full NWSL Challenge Cup schedule.