Fourth Challenge Cup Notebook; four remaining teams; three games to go.
Last Friday, the eighth-seeded Portland Thorns pulled out a 1-0 victory over the first-place North Carolina Courage to advance to the semifinals. The match marks the first time that North Carolina have lost a playoff match since the 2017 NWSL Championship, and the first time they haven't made a final – either as the Courage or as the Western New York Flash – since 2015.
At least at the beginning, it was a pretty typical North Carolina game with the Courage getting (and missing) a number of chances. And the early injuries of Katherine Reynolds in the first half and Lindsey Horan at the beginning of the second didn't seem promising for the Thorns.
But, somehow, things worked out in the 68th minute when Morgan Weaver stepped off her defender to get on the end of a Rocky Rodríguez cross – the result of Rodríguez getting around Denise O'Sullivan at the end line. Riding that goal and a fantastic goalkeeping performance from Britt Eckerstrom, the Thorns were able to grind out a win – capped by Weaver celebrating on the now-famous NWSL playground slide.
Weaver's goal turned out to be the only one of the round; the rest of the matchups yielded 0-0 draws and had to be decided on penalties. Both the games between the Houston Dash and Utah Royals and the Chicago Red Stars and OL Reign showed glimpses of quality play, but players ultimately looked tired. In the case of Houston and Utah, the match was marked by a series of dangerous-looking tackles and poor refereeing, leading to a missed penalty call early on, Megan Oyster fracturing a rib, and four yellow cards in the last 15 minutes as the game got even more out of hand.
The matchup between Chicago and Tacoma proved to be a rather unconvincing performance on both ends; players on both teams got chances, with the Reign finding significantly more looks than the Red Stars, but a handful of saves from Alyssa Naeher proved enough to send Chicago through to Wednesday.
The Washington Spirit's penalty kick defeat to Sky Blue was more exciting than the other two quarterfinal draws – although, admittedly, that could be because I'm more emotionally invested in both of those teams than some of the others who were playing. Despite a couple bobbles, Kailen Sheridan, in true Kailen Sheridan-form, came up with a handful of key saves to keep New Jersey in the match, while players such as Ifeoma Onumonu pushed for looks on the other end. On the Spirit's side, Ashley Sanchez continued to be an exciting player in Washington's attack, while Rose Lavelle's regulated minutes as a USWNT player meant she only appeared in the final third of the game.
Wednesday, July 22
- Houston Dash vs Portland Thorns, 12:30 PM Eastern
- Chicago Red Stars vs Sky Blue, 7:00 PM Eastern
The NWSL is Coming to LA
Ten years after Women's Professional Soccer's Los Angeles Sol folded, the sport is making its return to Southern California. As announced today, Angel City FC is set to join the NWSL in 2022 as an expansion side.
Backed by a mix of former soccer players and A-list celebrities, the ownership group seems determined to show their support for women's soccer by investing in it directly. Between the big names and those with firsthand knowledge of the game, 2022 could be another huge year of growth for women's soccer – although how it actually plays out on the ground in LA remains to be seen.
(Photo credit: Ashley Intile/Sky Blue FC)