It's been three days' and six games' worth of action in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. The tournament kicked off with a match that drew an average of 527,000 viewers on CBS. It feels like we've seen everything in these first games – from rusty play to late-match drama on the field, from public praise to controversy.
That off-the-pitch narrative centers around the Black Lives Matter movement, in light of the ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Most teams held conversations where they discussed the role of race and the possibility of taking a knee for the national anthem, a position first taken by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to call attention to police brutality in the United States and its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities.
To show their support, players warmed up in Black Lives Matter t-shirts, and wore BLM armbands during the game. Many took a knee during the national anthem as well, and again for 46 seconds after taking the field in acknowledgement of the eight minutes and 46 seconds that a police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck.
The discourse surrounding the anthem gained traction, specifically centering on a Black player's display of pain and trauma and, on the flip side of things, those who chose to stand. The coverage of this controversy extended far beyond the coverage usually given to this league – which begs the question of why, time and time again, mainstream media only pays attention to women's sports when there's something negative or "controversial" to talk about. The NWSL's response didn't help matters; it presented players with the additional option of staying in the locker room during the anthem, while declaring its support to both those who chose to take a knee and those who chose to stand.
There are conversations to be had about whether or not we should be playing the national anthem at all before domestic sporting events. I personally think that we should not. But I'm not focusing on that here. Instead, I want to make a space for the words of Casey Short and Julie Ertz:
The games have been exciting, and it's wonderful to have live soccer back in the United States (though the possible consequences of resuming live sports during a pandemic are still concerning).
That said, I want to focus on some of the highlights we've seen from Black women in these opening NWSL matches.
- Simone Charley kicked off the tournament with her first ever NWSL goal. It's a tap-in, in traffic, on an off-the-crossbar rebound that Steph Labbé failed to corral – and it's the product of a beautiful ball in from Christen Westphal that Lindsey Horan redirected into said crossbar. It feels fitting that Charley should finally see her name on the scoresheet after her work on the ball created a number of goalscoring opportunities for the Thorns last year. While she wasn't able to help her team earn its second goal in the tournament on Wednesday, Charley did well to create chances, dropping back to take on a more defensive role than she usually has, taking the ball up the right side of the field, and getting a couple dangerous crosses into the Chicago Red Stars' box.
- Coming in to preseason as a non-roster invitee, Jennifer Cudjoe earned her first NWSL minutes late in Sky Blue's 0-0 draw against OL Reign. (In that match, Taylor Smith and Jasmyne Spencer both made their returns to the field for Tacoma, after Spencer missed over a year with an ACL tear and Smith a year and a half.) Cudjoe's technical ability shone in her time on the pitch; her ball control surpasses that of most of the league. I can't wait to see more of her throughout this tournament and in the years to come. Also, while we're here, please read Bria Felicien's piece on Cudjoe if you haven't yet.
- Tziarra King was a fan favorite before she made her professional debut. Fortunately, said debut lived up to the hype. In the 89th minute, one goal down, King got on the end of a Utah Royals free kick, heading the ball into the back of the net to tie the game.
- Making her NWSL debut in the tournament's opening match, Addisyn Merrick impressed at right back. Unlike the majority of players we've seen get their first minutes in this tournament, Merrick didn't at all seem to be struggling with the speed of play. She made a number of impressive one-v-one blocks against a talented Thorns attack, and carried that performance into the North Carolina Courage's second match against the Washington Spirit.
- Lynn Williams, in true Lynn Williams-form, already has three goals in her first two games. And yeah, we already knew she's pretty good at soccer, but let's take a second to appreciate this goal against the Spirit.
Saturday, July 4
- Utah Royals vs. Sky Blue, 12:30 PM Eastern
- Houston Dash vs. OL Reign, 10:00 PM Eastern
Sunday, July 5
- North Carolina Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars, 12:30 PM Eastern
- Portland Thorns vs. Washington Spirit, 10:00 PM Eastern
Wednesday, July 8
- Utah Royals vs. OL Reign, 12:30 PM Eastern
- Sky Blue vs. Houston Dash, 10:00 PM Eastern
(Photo credit: Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos)