The NWSL’s ninth season begins with the 2021 Challenge Cup.
By Alex Holmes
The second edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup begins this weekend, with the league’s ten teams playing in home markets divided into East and West divisions for the preliminary rounds. The offseason saw plenty of player movement between clubs. Here is a team-by-team snapshot of what to expect in the league’s ninth season.
After losing in the 2020 Challenge Cup quarterfinals last summer, the Thorns finished in first place in the Fall Series where they went undefeated. New additions Crystal Dunn and Finnish star Natalia Kuikka will bolster a roster filled with talent from top to bottom. Kuikka, along with former USWNT player Meghan Klingenberg, and current USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn make up one of the league’s most staunch backlines. A star-studded attack led by the all-time top international goal-scorer Christine Sinclair and USWNT players Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, and Sophia Smith will put the Thorns in a position to pick up from where they left off in the fall.
The Dash won the inaugural Challenge Cup thanks in large part to the play of Rachel Daly and Kristie Mewis. The Dash finished in second place in the Fall Series and seem primed to defend their Challenge Cup title, as a bulk of that championship roster returns for the 2021 season.
It’s hard to argue that another team has more exciting newcomers than the Spirit, with World Cup champions Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnet and Swedish veteran Julia Roddar arriving in Washington for the season. They will provide fine support for rookie Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, who is coming off a successful first season with the Spirit.
NJ/NY Gotham FC
New Jersey? New York? How about both? Sky Blue FC rebranded into Gotham FC with a new look that celebrates the franchise’s home-base in New Jersey and its growing popularity in the New York market. The team lost in the Challenge Cup semis before placing fourth in the Fall Series. Veterans Carli Lloyd and McCall Zerboni lead a promising line-up that also includes budding USWNT star Midge Purce.
North Carolina Courage
The Courage are used to competing for the league crown, and their quarterfinal loss in the 2020 Challenge Cup and fifth-place finish in the Fall Series were uncharacteristic for a Paul Riley team. The Courage no longer have Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, or Sam Mewis. Despite that, this team will still be a contender for the Challenge Cup and NWSL titles—veterans Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, and Debinha will be sure of that.
Chicago Red Stars
Julie Ertz and Morgan Gautrat (formerly Brian) still anchor a deep Chicago midfield. Kealia Watt and new arrival Mallory Pugh will give opponents plenty of headaches in the attacking third this season. Although the Red Stars finished sixth in the Fall Series, their runner-up performance in the 2020 Challenge Cup proved they can compete with anyone.
Megan Rapinoe is back. Fans should be excited to watch how Rapinoe pairs with second-year player Tziarra King, who stood out on the Utah Royals in her rookie campaign last season. England’s long-time goalkeeper Karen Bardsley made an exciting move to the Reign during the offseason as well. The team finished third heading into the Challenge Cup playoffs last summer before falling in penalty kicks in the opening round.
The franchise formerly based in Utah returns to Kansas City this season and is hoping for anything better than a last place finish in the Fall Series. The roster has plenty of talent, particularly in the midfield with Australian Chloe Logarzo and Canadians Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott.
The Pride had to sit out the 2020 Challenge Cup, so this will be their first run at the championship. They placed second to last in the Fall Series but will have one of the most formidable attacking duos in the league with Sydney Leroux and Marta up top. England’s Jade Moore and Iceland’s Gunny Jónsdóttir headline the midfield.
Racing Louisville FC
Racing Louisville FC will make its NWSL debut on Saturday, April 10 against Orlando (7 P.M., Paramount+). This franchise has plenty to be excited about with a young, talented roster. The 2021 NWSL’s top overall draft pick Emily Fox and hometown hero Emina Ekic will make this squad very easy to cheer for in its first season. The 2021 NWSL season begins Friday, April 9 with a rematch of the 2020 Challenge Cup final between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars (8:30 P.M. ET, CBS Sports Network). A full schedule of the 2021 Challenge Cup is available here.