The Biggest Stories of the Challenge Cup: She Plays’ Mid-Tournament Update

By Preston Bradsher

The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup has officially entered the knockout stages after four rounds of preliminary matches that brought back professional team sports with a bang. The tournament has been marked by ups and downs for many teams as they jumped straight in without a preseason, which has led to some thrilling matches as well as some slow days. Many of the eight participating clubs (the Orlando Pride had to withdraw due to positive Covid-19 tests on the team) are adjusting to some significant lineup changes after an offseason marked by a much-anticipated college draft as well as some major trades. Add to the normal struggles of working out the beginning-of-the-season kinks the fact that this is all happening in the midst of a global pandemic and a national reckoning with the systemic oppression of Black Americans, and it should come as no surprise that it’s been a demanding tournament even before the elimination rounds. 

Amidst one of the hardest periods of many Americans’ lifetimes these players have shown up to an incredibly unique and difficult environment in the NWSL bubble, they have spoken up during the country’s most volatile moment of reckoning with racism in recent memory, and they have done all this to play a sport they love and help it grow. These women are performing no small feat in Utah both on and off the field, and they deserve every bit of recognition they’ve gotten and more. Now, at the midpoint of this one-of-a-kind tournament, here’s a brief look at some of the biggest stories to come out of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup so far.

Life in the Bubble

Life in the NWSL bubble has certainly been a unique experience for players, as well as the subject of much speculation and interest by fans. It has come into sharper focus in the past week due to comparisons to the WNBA and NBA bubbles that just opened in Florida, with the general consensus being that the NWSL has done the most to give the players the best, safest experience possible under the current circumstances. 

Players are quarantined in hotels where they are only supposed to interact with others from their own team. This has led to all sorts of inter-team competitions to pass the time, some of which made their way to social media in the form of Sky Blue FC’s epic game of jenga or the Chicago Red Stars’ NERTZ obsession. NWSL players who are also mothers have their own accommodations, where they have been working twice as hard to care for their kids while they chase the cup. 

Players have spoken up recently about the mental challenges of living in the bubble under such frightening national circumstances, and the NWSLPA has taken steps to provide additional mental health resources to help the athletes navigate the situation. The reality is that it’s hard; the players have signed on to do something really tough because they believed this league could lead the way for how sports could exist in a pandemic, and the burden they’re taking on by showing up deserves acknowledgement. 

It’s certainly not all gloomy inside the bubble, though. Fans may not be allowed to cheer on their favorite teams in real life, but the coffee truck from 801 Coffee Roasters inside the bubble has become an avenue for them to show their love from afar. Fans have come together to sponsor their favorite team’s coffee for the day, a trend that started small but has quickly become a phenomenon, with one online supporters group reportedly raising over $5,000 in less than a day. Players and coaches have expressed their thanks and excitement over social media, and Courage defender Abby Erceg summed it up well on Twitter: “Huge shoutout and thank you to the fans raising funds and sponsoring free coffee days for all the NWSL players/teams during this tournament. It’s the small things in our bubble that can make all the difference. We appreciate you and it doesn’t go unnoticed.รข”

Tournament-Wide Focus on the Black Lives Matter Movement 

The presence of the Black Lives Matter movement has been heavily felt throughout the entire tournament, and the additional toll the pressure of activism takes on Black players in particular cannot be ignored. The NWSL has long been a leader in the fight for social change among sports leagues, and the players’ full-throated commitment to center the crisis of systemic racism throughout the Challenge Cup has made national news all month.

Through the continued playing of the national anthem, the moments of silence before the games, the Black Lives Matter shirts and armbands the players have worn throughout the tournament, and the individual statements by clubs highlighting the work they’re doing to learn and create change, the league has made it abundantly clear where it stands in this moment in history. The players are, as always, the ones putting their bodies and reputations on the line to make these statements, and they deserve a lot of admiration for taking that on in addition to everything else they’re facing on and off the field.

League Engagement Grows Amidst the Pandemic

The Challenge Cup has been groundbreaking in more ways than one, and has produced some excellent soccer for a nation that’s been deprived of live sports for months. The opening match between North Carolina and Portland shattered the league viewership record, with CBS reporting 572,000 viewers tuning in. Fan engagement on social media has been buzzing, and a slew of joke accounts have popped up for Challenge Cup icons such as the playground next to the field, Vlatko Andonovski’s notebook, and the turf burns players have been picking up left and right. The NWSL was ambitious to create this tournament at all, and the rewards in terms of fan engagement and national news coverage have been significant.

The standings sat at a deadlock until the final preliminary games, and the play across the league has been more balanced than ever, which has made this tournament thrilling to watch so far. Things are about to get even more interesting as the quarterfinals play out this Friday and Saturday on CBS All Access, and She Plays is still running several fantasy games so you can participate from home. The new Knockout Pick ‘Em has prizes on the line, there are some late-game substitutions allowed for Starting XI, and as always, you can update your choices for Assign the Line before every round. Here’s a quick rundown of how the teams look at this point, and we’ll see you on the She Plays leaderboards!

No. 1 North Carolina Courage

After a slightly slow start as they found their feet again, the Courage returned to their dominant form in an undefeated preliminary run that had every team fighting to avoid a quarterfinal match against them. Head Coach Paul Riley has been putting out his best XI every game, and it’s paid off as their trademark aggressive press gets stronger as the team gets fitter. A heavy favorite to win it all, you can expect big things from this Courage squad.

Quarterfinal match vs. Portland Thorns – Friday, July 17 at 12:30pm ET

Players to watch: Lynn Williams, Debinha, Samantha Mewis

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Lynn Williams (42), Debinha (21), Katelyn Rowland (20)

No. 2 Washington Spirit

This young Spirit team came into the tournament looking to prove that they deserve a place at the top of the league, and they’ve found some real success in the preliminary rounds, losing only to North Carolina. They have some of the better scoring stats among the clubs and have developed a reputation for a high-energy style that can quickly take over a match.

Quarterfinal match vs. Sky Blue FC – Friday, July 17 at 10pm ET

Players to Watch: Rose Lavelle, Ashley Hatch, Bayley Feist

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Ashley Hatch (15), Sam Staab (12), Rose Lavelle (11)

No. 3 OL Reign

The Reign struggled early in the tournament to put together effective offensive plays as they adjusted to new coach Farid Benstiti. They did pull out one win in the preliminary matches and their defense has been consistently solid, though they have yet to be tested by North Carolina or Washington. Finally getting Jess Fishlock back from a long injury could provide a real boost to help this Reign team find its rhythm at just the right time.

Quarterfinal match vs. Chicago Red Stars – Saturday, July 18 at 12:30pm ET

Players to Watch: Bethany Balcer, Jess Fishlock, Nicole Momiki

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Michelle Betos (20), Bethany Balcer (11), Darian Jenkins (6)

No. 4 Houston Dash

Houston came into this tournament with a huge bang, scoring five goals in two games and making the league pay attention to the frequent underdogs. They seemed to hit a mental wall after that strong start though, and have struggled to make anything happen since. Don’t count the Dash out yet, because they’ve had some great individual showings that could combine into a force to be reckoned with if the team can get on the same page.

Quarterfinal match vs. Utah Royals – Saturday, July 18 at 10pm ET

Players to Watch: Shea Groom, Rachel Daly, Katie Stengel

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Shea Groom (21), Rachel Daly (15), Kristie Mewis (15)

No. 5 Utah Royals FC

The Royals had a huge first game against Houston, tying for most goals scored in a game so far this tournament. The offense hasn’t been able to produce much since then, despite coach Craig Harrington’s new 3-5-2 formation aiming to create more explosiveness. They had a comparatively easy preliminary schedule and pulled out a win against Sky Blue, but they were also shut out in their last two games. The return of Kelley O’Hara on the back line could give them some new looks in the quarterfinal as they try to make a comeback.

Quarterfinal match vs. Houston Dash – Saturday, July 18 at 10pm ET

Players to Watch: Tziarra King, Amy Rodriguez, Vero Boquete

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Vero Boquete (21), Amy Rodriguez (13), Tziarra King (5)

No. 6 Chicago Red Stars

Though the Red Stars have struggled offensively, their defense has been a great asset and could make the difference for them in the quarterfinals. They’ve been rotating players more than any other team, but now it’s time to put out their best XI and see if they can take the momentum from their recent victory against Utah and turn it into a quarterfinal win.

Quarterfinal match vs. OL Reign – Saturday, July 18 at 12:30pm ET

Players to Watch: Kealia Watt, Casey Short, Savannah McCaskill

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Casey Short (12), Savannah McCaskill (9), Morgan Brian (8)

No. 7 Sky Blue FC

Sky Blue is certainly a team in transition, but this tournament has seen some of their new players start to make some exciting connections. Though they’ve struggled to finish their chances so far, they did manage to out possess North Carolina last week and took home their first win against the Dash as well. Though it’s been a tough start for Sky Blue, they still may have some surprises in store.

Quarterfinal match vs. Washington Spirit – Friday, July 17 at 10pm ET

Players to Watch: Jennifer Cudjoe, Naho Kawasumi, Ifeoma Onumonu

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Kailen Sheridan (14), Ifeoma Onumonu (9), Naho Kawasumi (8)

No. 8 Portland Thorns

Portland has consistently underperformed expectations this tournament, struggling to make connections and finish despite some extremely impressive individual performances. They enter the quarterfinals as the only team with no wins, though they did manage three ties and only conceded one goal in their last three matches. This is a team in transition to be sure, and they’ll have to play with confidence and stop hesitating to finish their chances if they want a chance against North Carolina.

Quarterfinal match vs. North Carolina Courage – Friday, July 17 at 12:30pm ET

Players to Watch: Lindsey Horan, Rocky Rodriguez, Simone Charley

Top scoring Fantasy Players so far: Lindsey Horan (14), Bella Bixby (14), Simone Charley (9)

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