This weekend, women’s football returns to America as the National Women’s Soccer League becomes the first professional sport to return to the country. The league has turned its 2020 season into a cup format made up of a short set of league fixtures ahead of seeded knock-out rounds, with all games taking place in Utah. Whilst the rare return of women’s professional sport is exciting, the NWSL has been rocked with a number of issues which demonstrates just how precarious the return of football during a global pandemic is.
Orlando Pride’s last-minute withdrawal
Preparations for the tournament were thrown into disarray less than a week before it started as Orlando Pride announced they would be pulling out of the competition. This came as six players and four members of backroom staff received positive coronavirus diagnosis, reportedly as a result of some squad members picking up the illness when visiting recently bars in Florida, a state that has become the epicenter of USA’s second wave of cases.
The announcement sparked frustration and fury from Pride players and NWSL fans concerned that the outbreak would threaten the tournament’s existence. In the same week that Novak Djokovic was widely criticised for the outbreak at his Adria Tour, Pride’s withdrawal showed how delicate the return of sports to a world still afflicted by Covid-19 is.
The loss of Pride from the tournament will also be a blow in terms of attracting viewers to the competition given their team had a wide array of talent including US Women’s National Team players Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, Brazilian star Marta, and British players Claire Emslie and Jade Moore.
How will the Challenge Cup work?
With Orlando Pride’s withdrawal, there will now be eight teams participating in the tournament. Each team has four fixtures which result in a ‘league table’ ranking the eight teams. From these rankings, teams will then be seeded into a knockout quarter-final structure with 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, and so on. Knockout games will go straight to penalties if teams are drawing after ninety minutes, with semi-finals and a final taking place.
Who’s missing out?
Aside from the Orlando Pride players now no longer participating, a number of high-profile players declined to participate due to health concerns. These include Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Christen Press (Utah Royals), and Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns). Meanwhile, both Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh from Sky Blue FC have picked up injuries and have not been included in the roster.
Who to watch?
There are a number of British players who will be participating in the cup. Rachel Daly will captain Houston Dash, whilst Jodie Taylor and Jess Fishlock are both in the OL Reign roster. Fishlock in particular will be keen to return to the field having missed almost a year’s worth of football with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Even with the decision of some of the major USWNT players to sit out the tournament, Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage), Samantha Mewis (North Carolina Courage) and Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit) will still be participating.
There should also be a chance to watch some of the picks from the 2020 draft with highly rated forwards Sophia Smith moving to Portland Thorns and Ashley Sanchez going to Washington Spirit. Morgan Weaver is also at Portland Thorns with her number two draft pick taking some by surprise, so could be another one to keep an eye on.
Who are the favourites?
Having won the NWSL in 2018 and 2019, North Carolina Courage will go into this tournament feeling confident that they can do well. Last year, they stormed to the NWSL Championship in style, brushing aside Reign FC 4-1 and Chicago Red Stars 4-0 in the semi find and final, respectively. With no notable absentees from their roster, Courage look like the team to beat.
Portland Thorns have strengthened their squad since last season with the arrival of experienced defender Becky Sauerbraunn sure to give them a boost. The acquisition of two exciting young forwards gives them a potentially unpredictable spark up front. However, the draw has not been kind to them with three of their four seeding games against last season’s top four. They will have to put in some very strong performances in order to get a favourable seeding for the knock-out round.
Another team to keep an eye on will be OL Reign as they play their first competitive fixtures since being bought by French football giants Lyon. The way in which Lyon have dominated the European women’s game with six Champions League titles in the last decade suggests that they will be interested in making their mark in the US. The departure of Vlatko Andonovski to manage the US national team has seen former Lyon manager Farid Benstiti brought in. With a more favourable set of preliminary fixtures than some of their rivals, they could pick up a good seeding position ahead of the knockouts.
All of the NWSL Challenge Cup games will be shown internationally on Twitch.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph