Well, that's a wrap on the preliminary round. After relying on a four-way tiebreaker to determine teams four through seven, our next round is set.
The takeaways so far? We've seen a lot of really good soccer – especially compared with MLS – accompanied by the majority of players taking a knee for the anthem and no COVID-19 outbreaks (so far). On the other hand, we're also beginning to discover the emotional impact of living in a "bubble," especially during a global pandemic and amid nationwide uprising against police brutality and its disproportionate impact on Black people.
I can't imagine the mental demands of playing a professional sport, and I especially can't imagine doing it in relative isolation while watching the upheaval in the world around you.
That is to say, I really, really hope the players and staff are getting the support they need, both now and going forward. And that if the quality of play fluctuates because of anything mentioned above, that's understandable.
On the soccer side of things, we have four knockout games coming up, which means half the teams in this tournament will be heading home come Sunday morning. Given that there won't be extra time if a match is tied after 90 minutes, it's likely many of those eliminations will be filled with the added drama of penalties. So, let's take a quick look at those matchups:
Friday, July 17
North Carolina Courage vs Portland Thorns, 12:30 PM Eastern
Kicking us off, the unsurprising number-one seed Courage will face the last-place Thorns. North Carolina are looking like they haven't missed a step since last year, while Portland has, for the most part, played well, but struggled in the final third. If the Thorns can figure out that last piece in their three-day break, they might have a chance, but the fact that Lindsey Horan is still listed as questionable on the injury report – as well as Emily Menges and Bella Bixby – doesn't bode particularly well for that. I'm wary to write off any team, because weird things can happen in this league – and just last August, Portland beat the Courage 2-1 without scoring a goal – but this match will be North Carolina's to lose.
Houston Dash vs Utah Royals, 7:00 PM Eastern
Another matchup between teams who began their tournament facing each other, the Dash and Royals last played to a 3-3 draw. Both are counterattacking teams; both have struggled when they don't have possession; and neither side has a ton of roster depth. Whatever happens, it will almost definitely include exciting offense.
Saturday, July 18
Washington Spirit vs Sky Blue, 12:30 PM Eastern
The Spirit and Sky Blue seem determined to build from the back, though whether or not they're both equipped to do so remains another question. On top of that, Washington's a year into the rebuilding process, while New Jersey still seems to be figuring things out. However, the loss of Andi Sullivan is a huge blow to the Spirit's midfield, an area where Sky Blue is beginning to thrive with the trio of Jennifer Cudjoe, Sarah Woldmoe, and McCall Zerboni. If they can weather Washington's attack and maintain possession, Sky Blue may just be able to pull off an upset.
OL Reign vs Chicago Red Stars, 7:00 PM Eastern
Between a new coach and a handful of rather dull performances, the Reign have been far from the tournament's most exciting team so far. However, it's been mostly effective – barring a 2-0 loss to the Dash – and the players working their way back from injury, including one Jess Fishlock, means that they definitely have the tools to make a splash. To do so, though, they'll have to get by Chicago, a team that has consistently built throughout the tournament.
(Photo credit: Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos)