FIFA World Cup champions, Olympic medallists and 14 Canadians will be among the first North American professional athletes to resume play when the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup kicks off Saturday in Utah.
The NWSL is the first professional team sport to get underway since the coronavirus pandemic, deciding to play a tournament format instead of a shortened regular season.
In an attempt to get back on the pitch, the league has faced its share of challenges along the way.
One bombshell came earlier this week when Orlando Pride announced it would have to withdraw from the tournament after six players and four staff tested positive for COVID-19. Later in the week, three of the league’s stars, Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC) and Christen Press (Utah Royals FC) confirmed they were opting out of the tournament. (By the way, any player in the league is allowed to pull out without repercussions, and will still receive full salary and benefits for the year).
After Orlando’s withdrawal, the league had to make adjustments to the schedule, but with eight teams instead of nine, there is more balance. Teams will still play four games each in the preliminary round. All eight teams will advance to the knockout rounds, seeded by way of their results of their first four games. It’s single elimination all the way to the final, on July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Robust medical protocols have been in place from the beginning. All players were tested prior to small group training. Full-squad training began in early June. All players and staff were required to test negative prior to boarding a plane to Utah. Once in Utah, everyone must be tested again.
Players and staff will live and train in what’s being called the NWSL Village. The Village has hotels and dormitories as well as stadiums and training facilities belonging to the Utah Royals of the NWSL and Real Salt Lake of MLS, both owned by Dell Loy Hansen, the tournament host.
Ahead of Saturday’s opening match between two-time defending NWSL champions North Carolina Courage and Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns, here’s more on the eight NWSL teams, in order of last year’s regular-season finish (wins-losses-draws):
North Carolina Courage
2019 Record: 15-5-4
Canadians on team: GK Stephanie Labbe (Edmonton), D Lindsay Agnew (Kingston, Ont.)
Notable international players: D Abby Dahlkemper (U.S.), MF Debinha (Brazil), MF Crystal Dunn (U.S.), MF Samantha Mewis (U.S.), MF Denise O’Sullivan (Ireland), F Jessica McDonald (U.S.)
Preliminary-round games: Portland Thorns FC (June 27), Washington Spirit (July 1), Chicago Red Stars (July 5), Sky Blue FC (July 13)
Team notes: There’s a reason the Courage are back-to-back NWSL champions.
Even without two-time Olympic and World Cup champion Tobin Heath, who chose not to participate because of the uncertainty around COVID-19, this side is blessed with talent and depth. That will come in handy in the Challenge Cup’s compact tournament.
Their starting midfield of NWSL Championship most valuable player Debinha, Dunn, Mewis and O’Sullivan is considered the best in the league, while Lynn Williams (12 goals last season, second in league), Kristen Hamilton (nine) and McDonald provide firepower up front.
Chicago Red Stars
2019 Record: 14-8-2
Canadians on team: D Bianca St Georges (St-Charles-Borommée, Que.)
Notable international players: GK Alyssa Naeher (U.S.), D Tierna Davidson (U.S.), D Julie Ertz (U.S.), D Casey Short (U.S.), MF Morgan Brian (U.S.), F Yuki Nagasato (Japan), F Katie Johnson (Mexico)
Team notes: Losing back-to-back Golden Boot winner and 2019 league MVP Sam Kerr’s 18 goals is going to sting. The Australian captain signed a deal with Chelsea in the off-season.
Despite the loss of Kerr, the Red Stars are solid from back to front and haven’t had many roster changes from last season. Naeher played every minute in Team USA’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup run, Ertz and Short were both named to the league’s Best XI last season and Nagasato was the league’s top playmaker (eight assists). Midfielder Alyssa Mautz won’t be available after tearing her ACL in training.
St. Georges has yet to cap with the Canadian senior team, but she did suit up at the youth level at both the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups.
Forward Kealia Watt comes to the Red Stars after a trade with Houston. The former American youth and senior international, who is legally blind in her right eye, is perhaps better known under her maiden name, Ohai. She married Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt in February 2020.
Portland Thorns FC
2019 Record: 11-6-7
Canadians on team: F Christine Sinclair (Burnaby, B.C.)
Notable international players: D Becky Sauerbrunn (U.S.), MF Lindsey Horan (U.S.), MF Rocky Rodríguez (Costa Rica)
Preliminary-round games: NC Courage (June 27), Chicago Red Stars (July 1), Washington Spirit (July 5), OL Reign (July 13)
Team notes: When you have international soccer’s all-time leading scorer Christine Sinclair (186 goals in 296 matches for Canada) captaining your squad, naturally you’re going to be competitive.
Perhaps the biggest news in the offseason was the acquisition of Sauerbrunn in trade with Utah. Sauerbrunn is a two-time World Cup champion and three-time NWSL defender of the year. She’ll fill the gap left by fellow national team defender Emily Sonnett, who was sent to the Orlando Pride in exchange for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
With that pick, Portland chose highly-touted Sophia Smith out of Stanford. The 19-year-old American has featured at the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups and U-20 World Cups and was recently invited to a senior camp in January.
The Thorns have won two NWSL titles (2013, 2017).
OL Reign FC
Canadians on team: MF/D Rebecca Quinn (Toronto)
Notable international players: D Celia Jiménez Delgado (Spain), MF Allie Long (U.S.), MF Jess Fishlock (Wales), MF Shirley Cruz (Costa Rica), F Nicole Momiki (Japan), F Jodie Taylor (England), F Rosie White (New Zealand)
Preliminary-round games: Sky Blue FC (June 30), Houston Dash (July 4), Utah Royals FC (July 8), Portland Thorns FC (July 13)
Team notes: The Reign will miss star Megan Rapinoe, who has chosen not to play. Well known for her social activism, Rapinoe and partner, WNBA star Sue Bird, recently co-hosted the ESPY Awards alongside Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to great aplomb.
The Reign has 16 returning players and 12 new signings. Two key newbies are Costa Rican midfielder Shirley Cruz and American defender Alanna Cook, who’s on loan from Paris Saint-Germain.
Frenchman Farid Benstiti takes over head coaching duties from Vlatko Andonovski, who now runs the American women’s national team.
The Reign normally play out of Tacoma, Wash., a half hour south of Seattle, but they based their training camp out of the University of Montana in Missoula, MT.
Canadians on team: Jenna Hellstrom (Sudbury, Ont.)
Notable international players: MF Rose Lavelle (U.S.), F Kumi Yokoyama (Japan)
Preliminary-round games: Chicago Red Stars (June 27), NC Courage (July 1), Portland Thorns (July 5), Houston Dash (July 12)
Team notes: Midfielders Lavelle and Andi Sullivan are the heart of the Spirit.
Lavelle was a breakout star for the U.S. at last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, while team captain Sullivan is a former No. 1 draft pick who’s been capped at every level for the Americans.
Aubrey Bledsoe was named the league’s top goalkeeper last season.
Washington has to play the ‘Big 3’ in the league thanks to the rescheduling, but playing the best teams can help sharpen your game.
Of note, backup keeper Devon Kerr is a dual Canadian-American citizen. She was born in Toronto, grew up in Barrie and played for Canada at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup 2014, but has since represented the U.S.
Utah Royals FC
Canadians on team: MF Diana Matheson (Oakville, Ont.), MF/D Desiree Scott (Winnipeg)
Notable international players: D Rachel Corsie (Scotland), Katie Bowen (New Zealand), Kelley O’Hara (U.S.), MF Vero Boquete (Spain), MF Aminata Diallo (France), MF Gunny Jonsdottir (Iceland)
Preliminary-round games: Houston Dash (June 30), Sky Blue FC (July 4), OL Reign (July 8), Chicago Red Stars (July 12)
Outlook: Trading two-time World Cup champion and three-time NWSL defender of the year Becky Sauerbrunn leaves a hole in Utah’s backline and they’ll miss the services of two-time World Cup champion Christen Press, who chose not to play in the tournament, but this team has plenty of veterans.
Amy Rodriguez or ARod, two-time Olympic gold medallist and 2015 World Cup Champion, captains the team. Former American national team goalkeeper Barnhart, O’Hara and Scottish captain Corsie at the back and Matheson, Scott and Boquete in the midfield give the Royals decades of international experience.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Utah hoped to land French national team goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and German international Dzsenifer Marozsan of Olympique Lyonnais in Division 1 Féminine, but both players signed long-term deals keeping them overseas.
Craig Harrington, a former assistant with the Red Stars, is in his first year as head coach.
Canadians on team: D Allysha Chapman (Courtice, Ont.), F Meaghan Kelly (Kansas City, Mo.), F Nichelle Prince (Ajax, Ont.), MF Sophie Schmidt (Abbotsford, B.C.)
Notable international players: F Rachel Daly (England), F Kayla McCoy (Jamaica)
Preliminary-round games: Utah Royals FC (June 30), OL Reign (July 4), Sky Blue FC (July 8), Washington Spirit (July 12).
Team notes: While no one is celebrating Orlando’s withdrawal from the tournament, the Dash might be breathing a sigh of relief thanks to the re-jigging of the schedule. They will no longer play last year’s finalists NC Courage and Chicago Red Stars in the preliminary round.
Daly is always dangerous up front. She had five goals last season (down from her 10 from 2018) amid her duties with England at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Houston made several changes to their roster in the off-season, which could impact how quickly they gel in such a compact schedule. After six seasons with the Dash, Kealia Ohai Watt was traded to Chicago. Key playmaker Sofia Huerta is now with OL Reign and they’ll have two new centrebacks in Katie Naughton (Chicago) and Megan Oyster (OL Reign).
Sky Blue FC
Canadians on team: GK Kailen Sheridan (Whitby, Ont.), F Evelyne Viens (L’ancienne-Lorette, Que.)
Notable international players: D Jennifer Cudjoe (Ghana), D Sabrina Flores (Mexico), D Estelle Johnson (Cameroon), D Chantelle Swaby (Jamaica), MF Naho Kawasumi (Japan)
Preliminary-round games: OL Reign (June 30), Utah Royals (July 4), Houston Dash (July 8), NC Courage (July 13)
Team notes: Sky Blue took a major hit ahead of the tournament with injuries to American internationals Carli Lloyd (left knee) and Mallory Pugh (hip). Both are ruled out for the Challenge Cup as is defender Caprice Dydasco (right ACL).
Sheridan recorded 111 saves last season, tied for best in the league, and had three shutouts.
Viens, who was selected fifth overall in the NWSL draft (the highest Canadian pick since Rebecca Quinn went third overall in 2018), has yet to suit up for Canada internationally at any level. She’ll certainly be on the radar if she keeps up her prolific pace from her collegiate career – 73 goals in 77 career games at University of Southern Florida.
Midge Purce, who scored eight goals for Portland last year, is a key off-season signing.