Following a redraw in response to Orlando Pride’s withdrawal from the NWSL Challenge Cup, the league released a new and updated schedule for the first round of the summer tournament, with Sky Blue FC drawn against OL Reign, Utah Royals, Houston Dash, and North Carolina Courage. Our own J.J Post previews the teams that Sky Blue will be facing off against with quarterfinal seeding on the line.
Head Coach: Farid Benstiti
2019 record: 10-8-6
2019 results vs. Sky Blue: 2-1 win, 1-1 draw, 0-1 loss
Date and time of game: June 30th, 10 p.m. EST
Who are some players to look out for? The team’s top two scorers from 2019, Bethany Balcer and Jodie Taylor, will both return to help lead the line for the Reign, forming a dangerous duo up top. The pairing combines experience in Taylor, who’s made 48 appearances for the English national team, with promise in the 23-year old Balcer, the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year Award recipient. Balcer has a fascinating story, playing college ball at Spring Arbor University in the NAIA, before spending a year with the second-division pro outfit Midwest United FC. She scored at a torrid pace for both sides (129 goals in 98 appearances for the Cougars, 19 goals in 12 games for Midwest), and earned herself a contract with the Reign at the start of the 2019 season. The anchor in the center of the park will be USWNT regular Allie Long, a powerful player with ample technical ability, who will be a force to be reckoned with for any team looking to crack the Reign midfield.
What’s the major storyline for the team heading into the tournament? As expected, winger Megan Rapinoe elected not to play in the Challenge Cup, leaving the Reign without the Ballon D’or winner and USWNT legend for the tournament. However this is not uncharted water for the team with Rapinoe having made only made 6 league appearances 2019 with the squad still advancing to the NWSL playoffs, falling 4-1 to the North Carolina Courage in the semifinal. New head coach Farid Benstiti brings ample experience (but also controversial methods) that could prove invaluable in pushing this squad from a fringe playoff team to serious contenders. He’ll be seeking to bring the Tacoma side a first ever tournament title (the Reign have won the NWSL Shield twice, but never the NWSL Championship- sound familiar, Red Bulls fans?)
Head Coach: Craig Harrrington
2019 record: 10-4-10
2019 results vs Sky Blue: 1-0 win, 3-0 win
Date and time of game: July 4th, 12:30 p.m. EST
Who are some players to look out for? 38 year old goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart quietly put up one of the best seasons amongst NWSL goalies, posting 10 clean sheets, tied for highest in the league. She also maintained a strong save percentage, and as a result the Royals conceded just 25 goals in 24 games. Helping to protect Barnhart in defense will be USWNT standout and fan-favorite Kelley O’Hara, a
marauding fullback who never backs out of a 50/50 ball. Her hard-charging style of play and no-nonsense attitude will certainly be an asset to the Royals keeping up a stout defense in the Challenge Cup. The goals will come from forward and captain Amy Rodriguez (above) who was the team’s leading scorer last year. The 33-year old has compiled 132 caps over the course of her career for a reason- she can ball. Her goal scoring abilities and instincts are as good as anyone in the league, so expect for the veteran to carry the lion’s share of responsibilities upfront for Utah.
What’s the major storyline for the team heading into the tournament? After an offseason in which star defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn was lost to Portland in a blockbuster trade, the tournament’s hosts will now also have to cope without striker Christen Press, who opted out of playing in the Cup. The timing will be unfortunate for new head coach Craig Harrington, who signed on after two years working as an assistant coach with the Chicago Red Stars, as he now is going to have to put his own stamp on a Royals squad without arguably it’s two best players from last year. One can likely expect a fair bit of tinkering and experimenting as Harrington attempts to figure out his best XI, as well as the best ways to utilize the younger core of his side.
Head Coach: James Clarkson
2019 record: 7-5-12
2019 results vs. Sky Blue: 1-0 win, 1-0 win, 2-1 loss
Date and time of game: July 8th, 10 p.m. EST
Who are some players to look out for? Kristie Mewis can be counted on to be a presence all over the field, as the versatile 29-year-old has experience at both wingback and in the midfield. Mewis returned from an ACL injury last year and put up a stellar campaign, earning herself an unexpected return call-up to the USWNT at the end of the year. Kristie has an eye for goal, and she’ll be called upon by manager James Clarkson to help bolster the Dash attack no matter where she’s played. Rachel Daly will also be a likely source of goals, as the England international rejoins the squad for the tournament. Finding the back of the net 5 times in 2019, and 10 times in 2018, Daley is nailed on to lead the line for the Houston outfit. At the back, the newly acquired duo of Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster will likely be one of the most formidable defensive pairings in the league, both combining to bring a wealth of experience with top teams.
What’s the major storyline for the team heading into the tournament? Much like Sky Blue, the Dash are a team in the midst of a total rebuild, both on and off the field. In 2019, the Dash finished in 7th place, just 6 points ahead of Sky Blue. Over the offseason second-year head coach Clarkson continued an overhaul of the roster, wheeling and dealing until the squad that remained no longer contained players from the first Dash roster after the team’s inception into the league. The loss of Sofia Huerta, who was tied for first on the team in goals, and led the team in assists, will be a big one, but if the team continues to make strides like they did last year they could provide an upset or two.
North Carolina Courage
Head Coach: Paul Riley
2019 record: 15-4-5
2019 results vs. Sky Blue: 0-0 draw, 3-2 win
Date and time of game: July 13th, 10 p.m. EST
Who are some players to look out for? There’s no easy way to answer this question. The Courage roster is absolutely stacked, and you could probably make a solid case for anyone in their starting XI and even a few bench players being picked for discussion here. One area of the squad that stands out in particular though is North Carolina’s midfield. Paul Riley’s “box” setup (with two pairs of attacking and defensive midfielders) is arguably the best in the world, with Debinha and Crystal Dunn (both pictured above) spearheading any Courage advances and Sam Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan serving as anchors behind them. This quartet is as skilled as it is balanced - Debinha is an immensely technical Brazilian with a knack for flair play and critical goals, and O’Sullivan and Mewis have both displayed an ability to both apply pressure and unleash shots from just about anywhere on the pitch. And don’t be fooled by Crystal Dunn’s status as an outside back for the USWNT - the 27 year old is one of the top attackers around. Keep an eye out for the strike partnership of Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams as well, as the pair combined for 17 goals and 8 assists last year.
What’s the major storyline for the team heading into the tournament? The Courage are a team with the goal, and expectation, of winning it all. The defending champs didn’t lose a single player for the tournament to injury or opt-out decision, and they’ll line up in Utah with 10 of their 11 starters from last season on the field. And that last season went pretty well- they captured both the regular season shield and the playoff championship. They completed the same double in 2018, and took home the shield in 2017 as well. Sensing a pattern here? Coach Paul Riley is one of the best around, and he’ll be looking to continue North Carolina’s dominance by taking home a new piece of silverware in the Challenge Cup.
All in all, the new schedule is likely one of the more favorable options possible for Sky Blue. They’ll be the underdogs all tournament, and they’ll open and close the first stage by facing a pair of teams that will be among the favorites in the OL Reign and the North Carolina Courage, but in between those two they’ll face a pair of squads in the Royals and Dash that they can certainly compete with. The main objective of the group stage is to determine seeding for the quarterfinal round, and with this slate it’s not infeasible that the Sky Blue could scrap out a result or two somewhere along the line and manage to avoid bottom seeding. After that, once it’s time for the knockouts, it’s tournament soccer. And in tournament soccer, just about anything can happen.