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NWSL Apr 09, 2021

NWSL Challenge Cup 2021 Team-by-Team Preview

The 174-day wait for the return of NWSL action is nearly over.

With the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup set to kickoff Friday night, let’s take a look around the league at the comings, goings, and outlook for each of the 10 clubs this spring:

Chicago Red Stars

2020 Finish: 3-3-1, fell to Houston Dash in Challenge Cup Championship

Key Acquisitions: Mallory Pugh (Sky Blue FC), Nikki Stanton (Klepp IL), Sarah Woldmoe (Sky Blue FC)

Key Departures: Yūki Nagasato (Racing Louisville FC), Savannah McCaskill (Racing Louisville FC), Hannah Davison (AIK)

Challenge Cup Outlook: With the departures of Nagasato and McCaskill in the winter, the success of the Red Stars will rely heavily on the development of their talented young core – and the production of the new acquisitions around them. Bianca St. Georges will be a loss on both sides of the ball, but Kayla Sharples and Sarah Luebbert look to take that next step in their second year in the Windy City. Finally, fans should look for Kealia Watt to continue her impressive run of form at the #9 position.

Houston Dash

2020 Finish: 4-2-1, defeated Red Stars to become 2020 Challenge Cup Champions

Key Acquisitions: Denisha Blackwood (Orlando Pride), Gabby Seiler (Portland Thorns FC), Emily Ogle (Portland Thorns FC)

Key Departures: Erin Simon (Racing Louisville FC), Cece Kizer (Racing Louisville FC)

Challenge Cup Outlook: There’s few better signs for a title-winner than keeping the band together, and Houston have done quite well at just that. While Cece Kizer is a tough loss via the Expansion Draft, James Clarkson has worked to add depth to an already solid roster. With Rachel Daly with the Lionesses for the time being, a repeat of the Dash’s success in Utah last summer will need repeat Challenge Cup performances from Shea Groom and Kristie Mewis.

Kansas City

Key Acquisitions: Darian Jenkins (OL Reign), Chloe Logarzo (Bristol City FC), Mariana Larroquette (Lyn Club), Victoria Pickett (Drafted from Wisconsin)

Key Departures: Tziarra King (OL Reign)

Challenge Cup Outlook: Much of Kansas City’s success comes down to how well the team have managed the short turnaround time in their return to the league. That being said, Huw Williams and his staff have done well to bolster one of last summer’s more promising squads. Chloe Logarzo is a quality addition in the middle of the field alongside rookie Victoria Pickett, and Mariana Larroquette will look to aid Amy Rodriguez in the attack.

NJ / NY Gotham FC

2020 Finish: 2-3-1, defeated by Red Stars in semi-finals

Key Acquisitions: Sodam Lee (Hyundai Steel Red Angels)

Key Departures: Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars), Sarah Woldmoe (Chicago Red Stars), Kaleigh Riehl (Racing Louisville FC)

Challenge Cup Outlook: With a litany of new acquisitions, Sky Blue seemed to spend most of last season figuring out their system and chemistry – with some impressive results along the way. Freya Coombe will look to take the next step with a squad that impressively mixes young talent (Jennifer Cudjoe, Paige Monaghan) with NWSL veterans (McCall Zerboni). This team has the potential to develop into a perennial contender, but it needs Ifeoma Onumonu to lead them there from the front. 

North Carolina Courage

2020 Finish: 4-1-1, lost to Portland Thorns in opening playoff match

Key Acquisitions: Casey Murphy (OL Reign), Diane Caldwell (SC Sand), Agharad James (Reading FC), Carson Pickett (Orlando Pride), Taylor Smith (OL Reign)

Key Departures: Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns), Abby Dahlkamper (Manchester City), Stephanie Labbé (FC Rosengärd), Addisyn Merrick (Racing Louisville FC)

Challenge Cup Outlook: For the first time, the Courage’s success will depend on how well they’ve replaced the star talent they lost in 2020. Paul Riley has done well, though – Casey Murphy will be a fantastic addition in net, and Angharad James finally provides an answer to last fall’s departure of Sam Mewis. While turnover may raise eyebrows, Riley still has Debinha and Jessica McDonald at his disposal, and any team with those two can never be counted out.

OL Reign

2020 Finish: 1-2-2, fell to Red Stars on penalties in opening playoff match

Key Acquisitions: Angelina (Palmeiras), Karen Bardsley (Manchester City), Tziarra King (Kansas City), Ally Watt (North Carolina Courage)

Key Departures: Julia Ashley (Racing Louisville FC), Michelle Betos (Racing Louisville FC), Taylor Smith (North Carolina Courage)

Challenge Cup Outlook: OL Reign may be the winner of the winter, with an impressive group of additions that looks to help an attack that struggles last season. Tziarra King will look to lead the line as the return of Megan Rapinoe is delayed due to international duty, and Farid Bestiti looks to avoid a sophomore slump at the helm of a club that, on paper, can compete with anyone.

Orlando Pride   

Key Acquisitions: Gunny Jónsdóttir (Kansas City), Erika Tymrak (Kansas City), Crystal Thomas (Washington Spirit), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Washington Spirit)

Key Departures: Jordyn Listro (Kansas City), Kristen Edmonds (Kansas City), Emily Sonnet (Washington Spirit)

Challenge Cup Outlook: Much of Orlando Pride’s Fall Series was spent investing minutes into young talent, many of whom return and look to expand on some first-year success. This spring, the Pride need standout performances from Sydney Leroux and Marta across the front line, in the absence of Alex Morgan. The Pride can find success if their litany of veteran acquisitions hit the ground running; specifically, the midfield talent that is Gunny Jónsdóttir.

Portland Thorns FC 

2020 Finish: 1-2-3, lost to Houston Dash in quarterfinals

Key Acquisitions: Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage), Natalia Kuikka (Göteborg FC)

Key Departures: Gabby Seiler (Houston Dash), Emily Ogle (Houston Dash), Britt Eckerstrom (Retirement), Katherine Reynolds (Retirement)

Challenge Cup Outlook: Last season was a year of turnover and building of a “new Thorns”, to paraphrase Mark Parsons. That project took a major step forward in the Fall Series, with

Simone Charley and Rocky Rodriguez growing superbly into their roles in Portland. This team has momentum and has made a splash with the additions Crystal Dunn and Natalia Kuikka. If they continue on the trajectory of last summer, Portland can be a difficult team to beat this spring.

Racing Louisville FC

Key Acquisitions: Yūki Nagasato (Chicago Red Stars), Freja Olofsson (KIF Örebro), Emily Fox (Drafted from UNC)

Challenge Cup Outlook: It’s difficult to gauge an expansion side, but Racing have done a superb job of building a team that can make noise this spring. Yūki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill bring firepower from Chicago, but fans should keep tables on the exciting crop of young talent Christy Holly has assembled. Addisyn Merrick had superb performances in her rookie season, and local legend Emina Ekic is turning a lot of heads with her attacking prowess since being drafted. If Racing hit the ground running, they might shock some teams in this competition.

Washington Spirit

2020 Finish: 2-2-1, fell to Sky Blue FC in penalties in quarterfinals

Key Acquisitions: Trinity Rodman (Drafted from Washington St.), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals FC), Emily Sonnett (Orlando Pride), Saori Takarada (Cerezo Osaka Sakai), Julia Roddar (Göteborg FC)

Key Departures: Meggie Dougherty Howard (Orlando Pride), Brooke Hendrix (Racing Louisville FC), Crystal Thomas (Orlando Pride), Jenna Hellstrom (KIF Örebro)

Challenge Cup Outlook: The Spirit impressed many in Utah last summer, and they’ve made moves to ensure they’ll turn even more heads this spring. Ashley Sanchez has the keys to the midfield for her sophomore season, while two World Cup winners provide a boost to Richie Burke’s backline. Julia Roddar is a quality addition to cover for some veteran departures in midfield, and all eyes are sure to be on Trinity Rodman and what she can do in her rookie season.