It's been an interesting week in the Challenge Cup. After both the then-last-place teams picked up wins on Wednesday, the table is closer than ever. Although standings don't count for anything beyond knockout-round seeding, these results are a fantastic example of the NWSL's parity. There's not a clear weak side in this tournament. So, with every team one game away from the quarterfinals, let's take a look at where everyone is.
The North Carolina Courage sits in first, with a nine-point perfect record in their opening three games. They're the only team to have secured a specific spot in the knockout round – the number one seed, of course – and look, minus some squad rotation and offseason rust, to be starting this tournament where they left off last year... they're operating at a level above every other club.
In second place, we have five-way tie shared among Sky Blue, the Houston Dash, the Utah Royals, the Washington Spirit, and OL Reign. All of these teams are 1-1-1 in their first three games, with each totaling four points. Utah and Houston have both showcased exciting offense at points throughout the tournament, but also major areas of weakness. Sky Blue and OL Reign looked uninspired in their opening two matches, but both were able to pull off wins in their third games – New Jersey with a commanding 2-0 victory over the Dash and Tacoma besting the Royals with a stoppage time Bethany Balcer goal. Second half of the Courage game aside, Washington have looked like a solid team, but have struggled when Rose Lavelle is not on the field.
Seventh and eighth place are occupied by the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars, respectively. Both winless thus far in the tournament, neither of these teams are all that far behind the second-place pack. Portland has earned themselves two points and Chicago one, and each could easily escape a prospective last-place finish (and quarterfinal matchup against the Courage) with a victory in their remaining group stage match.
And even if they do end up getting knocked out early in the tournament, we can't really fault last year's second- and third-place finishers for it; both have been using these games as an opportunity to give minutes to young players and focus on development.
Sunday, July 12
- Washington Spirit vs Houston Dash, 12:30 PM Eastern
- Chicago Red Stars vs Utah Royals, 7:00 PM Eastern
Monday, July 13
- OL Reign vs Portland Thorns, 12:30 PM Eastern
- Sky Blue vs North Carolina Courage, 7:00 PM Eastern
- Many players have continued to kneel to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to demonstrate against police brutality. As sports continue to return, we've also seen a powerful protest organized by MLS's Black Players for Change before the opening game of the MLS is Back Tournament. As reported today by CBS Sports' Sandra Herrera, Black NWSL players are in talks to form their own coalition.
- On the topic of MLS, the whole playing-soccer-during-a-pandemic thing isn't going super well for them. FC Dallas and Nashville SC have withdrawn from the MLSiBT after players tested positive for COVID-19 while in the tournament bubble, and a handful of individuals from other teams have tested positive for the virus as well. This is to say playing sports right now is maybe not the best idea, especially with MLS's protocols being clearly ineffective. On the other hand, with the exception of the Orlando Pride, the NWSL has done well so far. "Everyone's doing their part," Thorns head coach Mark Parsons told media a week ago. "The vision for the NWSL to have [commissioner] Lisa [Baird] and everyone at the league and Utah to be able to do this, so far everything is great [...] Everyone's done a great job, but it's 24 hours, a seven day week responsibility that everyone has, and I think the most dangerous part is when people start to get comfortable and slacking off, the responsibilities we all have [...] Health and safety is number one, performing is number two, winning is number three."
(Photo credit: Ashley Intile/Sky Blue FC)