This week, we review the knockout stages of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, with the Houston Dash surprising the handicappers and winning the tournament title. We have some takeaways from the tournament and discuss what is next for the league and its players, along with the news of a couple of U.S. internationals who are in the midst of moves to the FA Super League in England, an update from the Orlando Pride—who had to sit out of the Challenge Cup with a number of positive COVIC-19 test results during pre-tournament training in Florida--and news on the expansion front.
NWSL Challenge Cup Playoffs End with Houston Dash as the Champions
The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup tournament in Utah was always going to be unique, as it was the first professional sports leaguein North America to start back to play after sports were suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic in March was held, plus the central location setting outside Salt Lake City, Utah, which followed strict protocols for player and staff safety. Another unforeseen occurrence before the tournament began was the on the field success of the Houston Dash in capturing the Challenge Cup; the Dash have been perennial strugglers since joining the league as the league's first expansion franchise for the 2014 season and never having made the playoffs in their six previous season. They are worthy champions because their defense was solid through the last three playoff rounds, with American international Jane Campbell in goal and a starting backline in the Final of Canadian international outside back Allysa Chapman, central defenders Katie Naughton (who formerly played for the losing finalists Chicago before an offseason trade brought her to Houston), Megan Oyster (another offseason acquisition—from OL Reign) and outside left back Haley Hanson, who spent the winter in Australia with the Melbourne Victory. On offense, they were led by English international Rachel Daly—who won the tournament's Golden Boot winner with 3 goals and 2 assists as well as capturing the tournament's Most Valuable Player award—and Championship Game MVP Shea Groom, who scored 3 goals in the tournament, which were all stunning and included the final goal in injury time to seal a 2-0 defeat of Chicago. Groom, in her sixth year in the league and now with her fourth team, won the 2015 NWSL Championship in her rookie season with FC Kansas City and had 21 goals and 11 assists in total in league play before the tournament started. Houston's last win over Chicago was in April of 2017 in an opening game 2-0 win and they entered the tournament with an all-time record of 2 wins, 6 ties and 9 losses against the Red Stars.
Canadian international midfielder Sophie Schmidt scored in the 5th minute (her first goal for the Dash who she joined in 2019 after three years with FFC Frankfurt in Germany) when she put her penalty kick past U.S. international goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who dived the wrong way. Midfielder Kristie Mewis, who was stellar all tournament long, raced around Chicago's rookie right back Kayla Sharples—who oddly was starting in her first match of the Utah event—from a telling pass in midfield by Daly. Mewis beat Sharples to the endline in the penalty box, where the defender tugged her down from behind as she streaked towards goal. Daly again turned provider just after the 90 minute mark when she saw midfielder Groom run off the defender's shoulder; Groom raced in alone on Naeher, poked the ball past her and slotted a fifteen yard ball into the net just ahead of a chasing defender and Houston knew that they were Champions and celebrated wildly. Campbell finished with four saves in the match for her third consecutive clean sheet in the knockout rounds of the tournament and her fourth in seven matches. She now has 7 penalty kick saves in 14 attempts in her career (including tie breakers this year—2 alone in the quarterfinal match against Utah, to be discussed in more detail below).
Houston Dash coach James Clarkson—a native of Wisbech, England—talked about his club's win after the Final win, "So, we had belief coming into the tournament. You know, we tinkered with the lineup, we move things around, but as we got into the knockout stages, we haven't conceded a goal. I think you know, three consecutive clean sheets. We've actually got on the scoreboard and we've scored two in the final [and three total in the last two matches]. That's just a real testament to the players. We had a clear game plan and we looked at it, and we try to prepare the team as best as possible. Ultimately, when those players cross the white line, it's on them. That's why I give all the credit to the players because they've been magnificent. You know, they listen to us, and they do what we ask and they do a really high level, and the effort, the commitment from all of them. All the players that we brought, we brought 24 players. We got criticized for that [most other teams had 27-28 compared to 22 for the 2019 regular season]. But, I think that was a key to keeping the team chemistry, the camaraderie, everything that that we did. You know, the effort that these players have put in and some of those players—Katie Naughton, how she's not in the (NWSL) Best XI as a center back is beyond me. She's been absolutely magnificent the whole tournament, she's played every single minute, and hasn't put a foot wrong. I think you she's been superb for us. So, to see players like that, and new players come in, that have adapted to what we've tried to do. And, you know, we've talked about the underdog tag, and nobody likes us and nobody rates us, you know, those things that I think are still true, but the players have bought into what we've done. And the effort and the work that they've put in off the field has paid off. There's no end game to it, you know, we've got to go on and the expectations just get higher. We've got to continue this. We've got to be able to prove that we can do these kind of things on a week-to-week basis when the league gets back up and running and we get back into a normal league. It's just going to get harder for us. So, it's exciting and hopefully the players thoroughly enjoy the next couple of days but, ultimately know we've got to continue to progress. We're at the start of something and hopefully we continue to get better."
Golden Boot and Tournament Most Valuable Player award winner Rachel Daly talked about her team's path to the title, "For the journey, I think I just tweeted about 15 seconds before I got in here, saying 'five years.' It has been a long five years, it has been a difficult five years, but five years at this unbelievable club is worthwhile and it paid off today. And you know, I said in my interview before, it wasn't luck. It wasn't fluke, we comfortably won that game….I'm just so proud of every single one of the girls today; we showed up and we believed and we never let our circle break."
Daly joined the Dash in 2016 after being selected as the sixth overall pick in the 2016 NWSL College Draft and has held at least a share of the team's Golden Boot award in each of the last three years. She scored three game-winning goals in 2019 and a career-high 10 goals in 2018 when she was named to the NWSL Second XI at the end of the season and the club's Most Valuable Player. In 2017 she led her side in goals with 5 despite playing as a defender for a portion of the season. At the national team level, Daly played in the narrow 2-1 semifinal loss against the Americans at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup with England, seeing action in five of their seven matches, starting in two, including the semifinal. Daly has scored three goals and earned 29 caps with the Lionesses while splitting time as a forward and outside back.
This win by the Dash should certainly help to change perceptions of the club in the States and around the world. Unfortunately, it has long been seen as "something less than Happy Town" for some players, particularly under the largely unproductive years of head coach Randy Waldrum (2014-2017), a tenure that went on for far too long, when he seemed more concerned with his other role of getting Trinidad and Tobago through to the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada—which he ultimately failed at—than coaching the Dash. The team currently has no U.S. internationals on the team (though they have long attracted Canadian and Mexican internationals as well as Daly from England via college in the States) and has had only a few American nats over the years, including Morgan Brian, Meghan Klingenberg and Carli Lloyd who were 2015 WWC winners and played in Houston, with varying levels of success and seemingly interest, but were all later shipped elsewhere. Christen Press sent a clear message in 2018 that unfortunately still resonates threw her almighty snit fit when she was traded there from Chicago. She fled to Gothenburg in Sweden and refused to show (costing the Dash a player with nothing in return) until she was acquired by Utah mid-season and promptly abandoned the Swedish club halfway through their year, much like she did in refusing to play in the Challenge Cup this year (see below). The Dash triumph win should help the club attract U.S. internationals in the future as well as top talent from abroad, which is something that this reporter has long hoped for.
For the losing finalists Chicago, their Quebec, Canada native and youth international Bianca St. Georges (who played collegiately at the University of West Virginia) was a revelation during the tournament, particularly since she missed the 2019 season after having knee surgery the day after being the number 20th overall pick in the 2019 NWSL College draft. Forward Rachel Hill, a new acquisition in 2020 from Orlando and who has been lethal in scoring in two seasons with Perth Glory in Australia, was frequently offside during the final against the polished Dash backline.
Two weeks ago, we reviewed the first round of the Challenge Cup (see: https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-nwsl-challenge-cup-2020-first-round-review-orlando-pride-scratched-4334228). This week, we will review the playoff matches and then reflect on the league's tournament overall—most important of all that there were no positive COVID-19 results after over 2,000 tests of players and staff. We will also touch base on where the league goes from here, some news from the Orlando Pride as well as on league expansion.
The quarterfinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup were highlighted by the four games yielding total of 1 goal during regulation time, with three games (consecutively over the course of a little over one day) ending in a scoreless tie that necessitated penalty kicks, which were held immediately after the 90 minutes without a 30 minute overtime session. The paltry goal count dropped the tournament average entering the semifinals to below 1 goal a game (0.94). Certainly there are some explanations for that—all the matches were played on artificial turf at the USL ground of 2019 USL Championship title winners Real Monarchs (Zion's Bank Stadium) with the last three games being played on grass at Rio Tinto Stadium, the Royals usual home as well as that of MLS club Real Salt Lake. Other contributors to the low goal scoring ratio were that the players had a short recovery window between games due to the condensed nature of the tournament, for which all the games were played at altitude. Teams' preseasons started for a week in March and was shut down so they only had a few weeks practice before the Challenge Cup started, with no pre-season games and only a few intra-squad scrimmages. There were a spate of ACL injuries before and during the tournament (see the link for our column on the first round of games above) which no doubt all of these factors had a role in, plus playing so many games on artificial turf. Add these obstacles to the overall uncertainty of life in a pandemic world, plus the stress of playing in a bubble environment, and it places the tournament in a new perspective. The league, players and staff should be applauded for what they did on the field and what they sacrificed off of it over the past month.
The intensity of play in the matches was noted by a number of league followers, including Commissioner Lisa Baird. The "Women's World Cup" type of format with a first round group stage of four games (which determined the seedings for the playoffs). followed by knockout rounds certainly created this. The top three seeds—North Carolina, Washington and OL Reign—all fell in the knockout stage. The upset of the knockout stage was number 8 seeded Portland Thorns (with no wins in the group stage) knocking the top seed North Carolina Courage (who won four straight games in the first round) out of the Cup on July 17 with a late 1-0 win. Offsetting the typical Courage dominance on shots in the match (21 to 10 for Portland), Thorns rookie Morgan Weaver scored her first professional goal from a Raquel Rodriguez (Costa Rica) assist—Rodriguez's first with Portland after her offseason trade from Sky Blue FC. The undoubted star of the match was goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom, who replaced rookie Bella Bixby—who had played well in all of the group matches but then suffered a knee injury—and Eckerstrom was fantastic in relief, making 8 saves, some of which were absolutely phenomenal. Brazilian midfielder Debinha had several chances at an equalizer for the Courage, including a free kick right outside the box that Eckerstrom leaped to get a hand on to prevent a goal in the 79th minute. In the 86th minute, Eckerstrom came up big again as a streaking Debinha forced a one-on-one save. The Thorns were missing U.S. national team players Becky Sauerbrunn, Adrianna French and Sophia Smith, who were all sidelined with injuries. Also, 2019 WWC winner Lindsey Horan, bothered by a hip injury, left the game in the 50th minute shortly after falling awkwardly; aggravating a hip injury that she was carrying. Eckerstrom has had 23 starts in four previous NWSL seasons with Western New York and Portland, and has also played in Australia with the Newcastle Jets in 2017/18 and 2018/19, driving the Jets to only their second ever playoff berth in their first season. Thorns goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer, the former two time Women's World Cup winner with Germany, was forced out of retirement and named as their backup. Thorns coach Mark Parsons said after the match, "Defensively, we were warriors. I would have bet another 100 minutes that we wouldn't have conceded today because our bigger purpose was driving us." The Courage had won the opening match of the tournament between the two sides 2-1.
The other three matches all went to penalty kicks after scoreless deadlocks. Number 4 seed Houston Dash and number 5 seed and host Utah Royals FC played a stirring 3-3 tie in both teams' first match of the Challenge Cup during the group stage. Even without goals, this rematch was probably the most entertaining game of the quarterfinals. The Dash and Royals ended up at 0-0 and played just the second match in NWSL history to go to penalty kicks (the first was the 2016 NWSL Final won by the then WNY Flash against the Washington Spirit, which this reporter covered in Houston). Again, a keeper was the star as the Dash's Jane Campbell made two saves in the penalty shootout session to go along with two saves in regulation. After Utah captain and 2015 Women's World Cup winner Amy Rodriguez hit the crossbar in the first round, Campbell saved the Royals' third shot from Scottish international Rachel Corsie and then denied the fifth and final attempt from Spanish international Vero Boquete to clinch the victory. Head coach James Clarkson said in his post-match press conference that Campbell was set to take Houston's fifth penalty, had she not saved Boquete's attempt.
On Saturday July 18, No. 2 seeded Washington Spirit faced No. 7 seed Sky Blue FC, and the Spirit's impressive run in the Cup (the only team other than North Carolina to win more than one game in the first round with two) ended after a 0-0 tie and falling on penalties (4-3). In the third round of penalty kicks, D.C. goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe stopped Sky Blue's Dominique Richardson but Spirit defender Sam Stabb—who played very well in the Challenge Cup—missed her shot and the score stayed tied at 2-2. In the fifth round, Elizabeth Eddy was successful for Sky Blue before Canadian international goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan stopped Bayley Feist's attempt to clinch the win for Sky Blue. The Spirit led Sky Blue in shots (12-8) and shots on goal (7-2). This was the first meeting between the east coast franchises in the 2020 event.
Number 3 seed OL Reign then met number 6 seed Chicago Red Stars in the quarterfinals on July 18. In yet another scoreless tie that went to penalties, Chicago converted every penalty kick attempt in the shootout as the Red Stars defeated the Washington State-based side, with two time Women's World Cup winning keeper Alyssa Naeher making six saves in the game. The scoreless tie did not reflect the strong attacks from both sides, including close attempts from Mexican international Katie Johnson for Chicago and Welsh international Jess Fishlock (injured for much of last season and who made her first start and second appearance for OL Reign in the Cup) in the first half and then by former Mexican and now U.S. international Sofia Huerta for OL Reign and U.S. international Kealia Watt of Chicago in the second half. During the penalty kick phase, two-time U.S. Women's World Cup winner Julie Ertz, Vanessa DiBernardo, Watt and Rachel Hill all converted for Chicago. Japanese international Nicole Momiki, Darian Jenkins and Bethany Balcer all scored their penalties for OL Reign, but Costa Rican international Shirley Cruz and American defender Lauren Barnes were unable to convert their kicks as the club was eliminated from the competition.
OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti said after the match, "I'm very sad for the players. I think the second half was very good. I was sure that we could score. We had some opportunities, but we didn't score. We must be efficient when we play very well, when we have advantage, possessions, when the enemy is down. At this time we must be more efficient, but I'm proud of the players today." Interestingly, Benstiti then talked about post-tournament play in the scope of 2021 (which we will address below), "I think we will be very competitive next year. I know my players more now. We have four defenders that are very strong. Lu (Barnes) today played left back [typically she is a central defender], and she was very, very good. We have some options, offensively and in the midfield, when [U.S. international midfielder] Allie Long comes back. Next season we will be stronger."
Portland Thorns FC goalkeeper Bella Bixby looks on as North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams (9) scores against her during the second half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium on June 27 in Herriman, Utah. Photo: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press.
For the 2020 Challenge Cup semifinals, compared to the 2019 NWSL season semifinals, Portland and Chicago repeated while Houston and Sky Blue FC were new this year, replacing 2019 Champions North Carolina Courage and OL Reign. The Houston Dash had never made the playoffs in their previous six seasons in the league and Sky Blue only made them once, in the league's inaugural season of 2013.
The number 4 seed Dash faced number 8 seed Portland, with the latter favored by many given their playoff pedigree (2 NWSL Cup Final victories and 1 Final defeat) versus Houston's debut at this juncture. The Dash was undaunted and advanced to the Challenge Cup Final with a 1-0 win, with English international Rachel Daly scoring in the 69th minute by heading the ball into the goal off of a corner kick. On the play, midfielder Kristie Mewis sent in a corner—Houston's fifth of the match—to the far post and Canadian international midfielder Sophie Schmidt headed it on goal, but it caromed off the crossbar and Daly scored in the scramble in front of net. The goal snapped a 376-minute scoreless drought for the Dash. Goalkeeper Jane Campbell was solid during the knockout stage again after a shaky first round, finishing with three saves and made a routine, but massive, save in the 93rd minute when she calmly collected a headed shot from Portland forward Tyler Lussi as Houston strove to close out the match. A minute later, Campbell raced off her line to smother a 50-50 ball in front of Thorns' impressive rookie forward Morgan Weaver before she could get latch onto the ball. A significant impact was made by Brianna Visalli (who has dual U.S. and British citizenship) and the former Pepperdine University (Malibu, California) Wave player who went to West Ham (appearing in the Women's FA Cup Final in 2018-19, when the Hammers lost 3-0 to Manchester City) and then moved last season to Birmingham City, until she missed time for a surgery and then returned to the States when the Super League was suspended. Canadian international forward Nichelle Prince (in her fourth year with the Dash) also was dangerous in attack—Prince came late into the bubble after returning home due to a death in her family.
Portland posted three shutouts in the tournament's six games and six players made their club debuts in the tournament: Bixby, Rodríguez, Becky Sauerbrunn, Autumn Smithers, Weaver and Christen Westphal, with Smithers and Weaver both making their professional debuts. In total, 21 players featured for Thorns FC in Utah. Former U.S. international Meghan Klingenberg and current Canadian international Christine Sinclair both started all six matches for the Thorns. Charley, Klingenberg, Tyler Lussi, Rodríguez, Angela Salem, Sinclair, Weaver and Westphal played in every match for Portland in the Challenge Cup.
In a fascinating semifinal, number 6 seed Chicago advanced to its second consecutive final (after last season's NWSL League Final loss to the Courage) in a 3-2 victory over number 7 seed Sky Blue FC. Bianca St. Georges (8th minute), Rachel Hill (11th), and Savannah McCaskill (60th) scored for Chicago to stake a 3-0 lead before Canadian international Evelynne Viens (72nd) scored and then an own goal five minutes later from Julie Ertz made the last ten-plus minutes very exciting as Sky Blue chased an equalizer. St Georges, so bright in attack all game, assisted McCaskill's ultimate winner. Viens has not been capped by Canada but after scoring 73 goals in 77 games at the University of South Florida and making her Sky Blue FC debut in 2020, she should see a call-up in 2020 or 2021, when Canada names a replacement for Kenneth Heiner-Moller, who returned to Denmark earlier this year.
The 2020 Challenge Cup Best XI was announced just after the tournament ended on July 26, with Houston, Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns all with two selections, while the North Carolina Courage led all the teams with four, making their quarterfinal defeat even more surprising.
2020 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret Best XI, presented by Google
Goalkeeper: Britt Eckerstrom (POR)
Defenders: Julie Ertz (CHI), Abby Erceg (NCC), Casey Short (CHI), Jaelene Daniels (NCC)
Midfielders/Forwards: Debinha (NCC), Lynn Williams (NCC), Lindsey Horan (POR), Rachel Daly (HOU), Shea Groom (HOU), Rose Lavelle (WAS)
Overall Evaluation of the 2020 Challenge Cup
So how do we evaluate the NWSL's 2020 Challenge Cup event overall? On July 24, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird talked to the media about how the league developed the bubble concept in Utah for player safety (players essentially were in 8 team bubbles as they interacted only with their own teammates when at their hotel, etc. and not with other teams' players). The players in interviews talked about how they had had meetings during their down time, played games and even had a book club—using the time to read articles on social issues facing the country, particularly Black Lives Matter (see more below). Baird and the league officials should be very proud of what they accomplished—there were over 2,000 COVID-19 tests of players, staff and league and organizational officials during the tournament with no positive tests—an absolutely phenomenal statistic in these times and the most important figure to come out of this tournament, which made everything else that transpired possible. It's stunning really, given that other leagues in the States are starting—MLS and NBA and WNBA basketball are all in Orlando bubbles at Walt Disney World, while the NHL is in two bubble cities in Edmonton and Toronto, Canada for their playoffs and Major League Baseball recently has begun a shortened regular season at their home cities (all without fans)—but all have had multiple positive COVID-19 test results and Major League Soccer's FC Dallas and expansion team Nashville SC both had to withdraw because of multiple cases within each team. Orlando Pride did have to pull out of the NWSL Challenge Cup because of 10 player and staff cases just before going to Utah (interestingly they were still in the 'Bubble Capital' of Orlando—see more below) but the NWSL was committed to medical staff guidance and protocols and the team did not come to Utah. Again, the league prioritized player safety—who knows if Orlando had played and other team's players were infected, etc. There were skeptics who wondered how many players had to test positive before the Challenge Cup was cancelled. Thankfully we don't have to speculate as none did. The NWSL's model worked brilliantly (even as COVID cases increased in the country in June and July—particularly in the West and including the State of Utah). The NWSL was the first league to launch play and do the central location concept and they pulled off the event in an extraordinary manner and it is now a model for the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League men and women, that will be held later this month, as well as for the Premier Lacrosse League that follows our league into Utah for a central location event as well as other leagues.
Baird said in a media conference call two days before the Final, "Having the belief that you can do live sports and you can do it effectively, safeguard players in preseason and then do it in a bubble, I think we're walking away, all of us, with confidence in the medical protocols that we put in place…Our approach—and I'm not saying it's the right approach for everybody—is [to] come up with what we call the end-to-end solution. And that is absolutely about health and wellness, but it's all also about putting together tournament or competition formats that our players can excel and thrive in. And I think the tournament format for this time was exactly the right format."
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird (Photo Credit—NWSL)
Houston's Rachel Daly talked about how the league officials as well as Utah Royals and Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hanson were so instrumental in the success of the Cup, "I think putting on this tournament was brave. (NWSL Commissioner) Lisa Baird…she's come in, stepped up to the plate and even when I went up to go collect the awards tonight. I said thank you to her because she's been absolutely phenomenal. Everyone behind the scenes, you know, every single member of staff behind the scenes, the caterers, the people who clean the locker room, every single person that put in effort to make this happen, so much credit to them, they put in so many hours, so much with the hotel staff. It's a difficult thing to do, living in the bubble for a month…but the safety of this was second to none. You know, it took a lot of bravery from the players to step up…. There was a lot of issues…and honestly it's been such an experience and such a humbling experience."
I have talked to players, coaches and team managers throughout Europe and a few in Latin America over the past month and they all wanted to know about how the NWSL was doing through this new concept. Baird was asked about the fact that Major League Baseball and the NBA were touting that they are the first leagues back performing in late July, just as the NWSL tournament was finishing—her league was the first to start back up by weeks—but she chuckled and said that her staff knows what they accomplished. Baird added, "No one had done this, not us, the NBA, the NHL and the MLS." So, well done NWSL, Commissioner Baird, her staff, the teams, coaches and players. I watched every game but one in the Challenge Cup and, despite the low scoring nature—with 13 of the of the 23 games finished either in a 1-0 or 0-0 scoreline—I found the games entertaining, the players committed and it was great to watch women's football live [or delayed by a few hours on CBS's sister sports network]. The fact that the overlooked Houston Dash won the Cup with vibrant attacking play—particularly by Daly, Groom and Prince—and stellar goalkeeping from Jane Campbell and her goal stingy back line was a great story. Sky Blue FC, who lost 3-2 to Chicago in the semifinals after pulling back late from a 3-0 deficit, also has a strong platform to build on as they look forward to playing at Red Bull Arena, the home of the MLS' New York Red Bulls, after the move north from Rutgers.
Another positive was the NWSL record television viewing figures for the opening game (587,000) and Championship Final (653,000) on national network CBS—which were far ahead of the previous record for a 2014 regular season game between Portland and Houston (190,000). The Challenge Cup Final attracted the second-highest television audience for a soccer game in the States (English-language) behind 750,000 for Leicester City against Manchester United on the final day of the EPL. The NWSL Challenge Cup final outdrew the WNBA opener on ABC (539,000 viewers).
One big negative, along with the lack of scoring, was the absence of a few U.S. national team players, namely Christen Press of Utah (why did that not surprise anyone after her 'I'm not going to Houston' hissy and other 'personal' demands over the years?), Tobin Heath of Portland and Megan Rapinoe (the latter who never explained her decision to avoid the bubble in Utah but then joined the WNBA bubble in Orlando with her partner Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm—something else which she didn't discuss).
What Next For the NWSL?
So what happens next? The league has not announced further competition plans yet for games in 2020 but we expect to hear shortly and players will probably hear first within the next week. Officially they are RETURNING to their home markets to train. Benstiti, after his OL Reign team lost in the quarterfinals, essentially said, 'Sayonara' and 'See you next year' to the media. Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke, when I asked him just before the tournament about playing in their home market to keep momentum going after two stellar late season games which attracted large crowds to D.C. United's soccer specific stadium Audi Field, he said that it could just be exhibition games or small weekend tournaments (like the semi-professional UWS league has done in Michigan) for in-market games. There was talk before the tournament to possibly have another similar central location tournament but that is now off the table, primarily because of the stress on the players—it was like a Women's World Cup in terms of being away from home for a month plus the added pressure of being severely limited on what you can do outside of your lodging, worrying about friends, playing most of the games on the hard artificial turf field, continual COVID-19 testing, wondering what if someone (themselves) tested positive, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. International friendly matches, like North Carolina hosted last summer with the Women's International Champions Cup with one side from England (Manchester City), France (the Champions Olympique Lyon) and Spain (Atletico Madrid) or Houston's trip to Monterrey at the end of the 2019 season, just aren't possible now with a travel ban for Americans into most countries because of the high rate of COVID infections here compared to most other countries around the world. OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti said after OL Reign's Challenge Cup quarterfinal loss that he had hoped to bring his team to France in August for a tournament, but that is highly unlikely logistically, at least this summer.
So what can the players do to stay in shape and not lose their game sharpness? U.S. national team midfielder and 2019 World Cup champion Sam Mewis has signed a one year contract with Manchester City in the FA Women's Super League, and is expected to be joined by international teammate Rose Lavelle, the Washington Spirit midfielder who won the Bronze Ball last summer in the World Cup as the tournament's third best player. As U.S. national team players allocated to the league, they were technically federation-controlled players and not subject to their NWSL club's wishes (or a transfer fee). Since the Challenge Cup ended with no immediate continuation plans, Mewis was allowed to leave on a free. Mewis is a three-time NWSL champion, winning with Western New York Flash in 2016 and the North Carolina Courage in 2018 and 2019. U.S. international Carli Lloyd played for Man City in 2017, winning a FA Women's Cup and scoring City's only goal in the UEFA Women's Champions League semifinal against Lyon. New City manager Gareth Taylor was recently brought in from the Manchester City academy and men's under-18's squad to head up the senior women's team.
If you are not a U.S. women's national team player and thus your rights are controlled by your club, what do you do if the Challenge Cup was effectively the NWSL season (with 5-7 games for 8 teams and 0 for the Orlando Pride)? Loan deals are possible but James Clarkson told me the week of the Final that he was going to be carefully about loan deals and make sure that they were best for the player and his team and that compensation would likely play a role in the decision. Where will the players go? What leagues can they play in? How about Europe with most leagues having a Fall through Spring format? Despite high profile international signings in the FA WSL in England (see: https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-arsenal-lowdown-w-league-season-change-la-possible-nwsl-expansion-site-4333122), clubs throughout Europe are going to be struggling with budget cuts and reduced revenues with some leagues (e.g. Sweden halving their season in 2020) as some fans are unwilling to take a risk to attend a game in countries where they can (e.g. Iceland). Australia's Westfield W-League changed their season recently from a November to February format to a December to July calendar (see above link in this paragraph), so unless a player goes on loan for a limited number of games, that is not a viable option. The W-League clubs will have reduced budgets as well; there were even reports a few months ago that the League would be forced to not hold a 2020 season. It is all ambiguous for the players as to what is next for them and how to navigate their career.
Black Lives Matters Solidarity
At its core, the NWSL and its players have always been at the forefront when it comes to social issues, whether it be for gender pay equity or social justice. On June 27, during the opening game of the tournament on national television, they supported the Black Lives Matter movement with warm-up shirts and that important statement continued through the tournament. Commissioner Lisa Baird explained, "I think because we were the first league back there were a lot of people paying attention to what was going on. It was a very intense time for the players, particularly because they're in a new environment, they're in the bubble; we were the first team out. I was so supportive of the freedom of expression, but I was so impressed by the courage of our players to do it. It's not an easy time to make a stand on social justice. I think what they did was really important. I know our fans were very supportive." In the first game, all the players for the Thorns and the Courage took a knee during the national anthem to protest policy brutality directed at Blacks and other minorities (though interestingly not the referees) which was a practice begun by Colin Kapernick in the NFL a few years back and also done by Megan Rapinoe in the past. There was a bit of a controversy in the second match of the day between Chicago and Washington when a few of the players didn't kneel during the national anthem. Attention focused on kneeling Chicago defenders Casey Short (who was in tears) and comforted by Julie Ertz, while Rachel Hill stood behind her, head bowed and hand on Short's shoulder. Chicago Red Starts head coach Rory Dames said that his side (which lost to the Spirit 2-1) were "emotionally spent," and had struggled all day with how to approach the national anthem ceremony. He added, "I think everybody's exhausted. I think we were exhausted before we got here." Hill was barbequed on social media and she had to defend herself by writing, "I chose to stand because of what the flag inherently means for my military family members and to me, but I 100% support my peers. I support the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly. I also support and will do my part in fighting against the current inequality. As a white athlete, it is way past due for me to be diligently anti-racist." At one point, some people seemed to be keeping track of who was and wasn't taking a knee during the national anthem and it threatened to drown out the game on the field as well as scoring and other stats, which incidentally will not count towards the NWSL regular season records for goal scoring leaders, games played, etc. One reporter in the States, who has always been diffident towards the women's game, contacted me for a list of who stood and who took a knee (the vast majority of players) for each game. I told him I wouldn't do that but would send him a list of scorers and other statistics but this writer wasn't interested in that! Overall, the league and the players made an important statement for human rights throughout the tournament on an issue that is the most important one that we are facing as a nation at this point in time.
Julie Ertz and Casey Short both kneel during the national anthem before the game against Washington Spirt on June 27, while their teammate Rachel Hill, right, chose to stand. Credit: USA Today Sports/USA Today Sports, via Reuters.
Orlando Pride News
The big question on everyone's mind was how does the Pride recover after not getting to compete, particularly if there are no more Cup or regular season games this season. Last season's disastrous 16 points and wooden spoon for last place was hopefully in the past as the club made a number of savvy acquisitions in the off-season. However, a few players went to a bar during training camp (with photos posted on social media) in Florida and then the team had a number of players and staff test positive for COVID-19. Can the team mend its fractured psyche? It will be interesting to watch how head coach Marc Skinner navigates the situation.
On July 13, recently signed Pride defender Ali Riley was loaned to Swedish club FC Rosengård. Riley, who lives in Sweden full-time, joined the Swedish powerhouse immediately. She previously played for them from 2012-18. The loan will run through November 2020, with the Pride holding the right to recall at any point during the loan. Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner said. "We're obviously disappointed to not have been able to see Ali and the rest of the team's hard work on display at the Challenge Cup but we're happy to be able to provide her with an opportunity to get some competitive matches and training at Rosengard,"
Riley joined the Pride in February on a one-year deal with an option for an additional year. In her previous stint at Rosengård, the New Zealand Women's National Team captain made 132 appearances, scored four goals and won three Damallsvenskan titles over her seven seasons. The veteran defender has also previously played for Bayern Munich (Germany), Chelsea FC (England), as well as FC Gold Pride and the Western New York Flash in Women's Professional Soccer (WPS).
Pride become the first NWSL team to have an exclusive training facility
In mid-June, the club unveiled photos and videos of the newly renovated Orlando Pride Training Ground at Sylvan Lake Park in Seminole County, which sees the team become the first club in the NWSL to have its own exclusive training facility. The site was the former training home of Orlando City SC of Major League Soccer, but underwent a full renovation in order to meet the needs of the Orlando Pride. Executive Vice President Amanda Duffy (the former NWSL Managing Director of Operations in 2017 and 2018 and President in 2019) said, "Having an exclusive training ground for the Pride is a game changer for both the soccer operations and culture of our club. The decision to renovate this facility to give the Pride its own space and elevated support is a testament to the club's deep commitment to its NWSL team and its investment in the team's success. We're excited to make this our home for years to come." The new training ground features a gym, meal room, analysis room, players' lounge and a locker room designed to replicate the team's locker room at Exploria Stadium. In addition, the Pride has two club-maintained, grass training fields that are exclusively used by the team. The complex also includes office space for the club's technical and medical staff, and will have exclusive areas for the team's media operations.
Expansion Update—Los Angeles in for 2022
We talked a few weeks ago about a possible new team coming into the NWSL for the Los Angeles market (see: https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-arsenal-lowdown-w-league-season-change-la-possible-nwsl-expansion-site-4333122); things progressed very quickly as the city is now formally in the league. The club is nicknamed Angel City Football Club and is primarily a women-based ownership group. It includes celebrities like founder Natalie Portman (an Academy Award winning actress), Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain, America Fererra, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba; late night talk show host Lilly Singh and business leaders including Kara Nortman (a technology venture capitalist), Julie Uhrman (a video game entrepreneur) and Alexis Ohanian (who co-founded Reddit, is the lead investor and married to tennis great Serena Williams and includes their two-year-old daughter on the investor list).
The ownership group includes 14 former U.S. women's national team players, including 12 with ties to Southern California including Mia Hamm, one of the owners of MLS's LAFC. The other former U.S. national team players involved with the ownership group include:
Lorrie Fair Allen
Ronnie Fair Sullins
Tisha Venturini Hoch
Lauren Cheney Holiday
Sacramento Republic, which began play in the USL Championship in 2014 and won the league championship that season and originally set to join Major League Soccer in 2022 but their first season at the top level is now pushed back to 2023, was looking at joining the league in 2019 before pulling back, but there is still interest there. Racing Louisville (originally named Proof Louisville FC for their whiskey heritage but was quickly ditched after a lot of negative reactions) will enter the NWSL in 2021, bringing the league to 10 teams next year.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey