Challenge Cup 2021 hasn’t quite lived up to its #ChaosCup reputation from last year, but there have been plenty of twists and turns through the first several rounds. Let’s take a look at who is up and who is down.
Winner: The Portland Thorns
Widely hailed as the best team in the league after an impressive offseason, the Thorns have come out of the gate fresh and ready to go. They still don’t look like they’re operating at peak levels, but they’ve earned three clear (and relatively comfortable) victories, and shown some significant quality in the process. It hardly seems fair that a team with offensive weapons like Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, and Christine Sinclair should also have two of the best young strikers in the game and the increasingly dominant Simone Charley. This isn’t a team without weaknesses, but they look far more difficult to exploit than anyone else in the league.
Loser: Anyone tasked with defending Trinity Rodman
Any questions about whether the 18 year old Rodman was ready for the top level have already been put to bed. She opened her NWSL career as a substitute and scored a goal within ten minutes. In her second game, she put on one of the best individual performances from any player in this year, or really any year. She created six chances against Racing Louisville, including the game-winning assist in the 93rd minute. She followed it up with another electric performance against Orlando. It’s no small task making Ali Riley look that silly. There’s always a risk of overhyping a young player and putting too much pressure on them. It would be unreasonable to expect this level of performance every week, and Rodman likely won’t be well-served if the Spirit continue to run so much of their attack through her. Still, it’s been thrilling to watch.
Loser: Amber Brooks
You could assemble a full bloopers real purely from the 90 minutes that Brooks spent on Wednesday night trying to match up with Sophia Smith and Simone Charley. That’s a tall order for any defender, but it was particularly shocking how often Brooks got turned the wrong way, got left on the ground, or simply got beat for pace. It’s never a good idea to judge a player based on their worst performance. But if Brooks was hoping to use the absence of Lauren Barnes to make her case for a regular starting position, it hasn’t gone particularly well. It all leaves a big question mark for the Reign. They should have a lot of firepower online soon, but that defense looks like it still needs some serious work.
Winner: The Gotham Ethos
A rebrand doesn’t remake a team. But it can sometimes put the capstone on more fundamental material changes that were already underway. It sure feels like that’s what has happened in New Jersey. It’s incredible how far this team has progressed from the doldrums of 2018-2019. This squad now looks serious, determined, and packed with intensity. It’s hard to say what that will mean over a full season, but I sure wouldn’t want to play them right now.
Loser: The dignity of the Red Stars defense
This is genuinely one of the most embarrassing goals I have ever seen in a soccer game. It’s a long kick from the keeper which is allowed to bounce six times and then roll through the top of the penalty area without a single touch from another play. Sarah Gorden watches it go past her and then—in a fit of madness—decides to try to shield the ball despite the fact that it’s a good 20 yards away from the keeper and moving slowly. Alyssa Naeher has her hand up, possibly contributing to Gorden’s decision. Then Gorden gets absolutely leveled by Amy Rodriguez, which, yes might have been a foul but also come on. Through everything, Casey Short is there watching everything play out, only too late realizing the disaster that’s about to ensue. It’s…truly awful.
Loser: Anyone taking a penalty against Ashlyn Harris
Ashlyn Harris has already saved two penalties, a big part of why Orlando remains in the hunt for the top of the East Division. But look at the actual penalties.
To call them shocking feels like an understatement. These are absolutely dreadful efforts. And it’s not like Kawasumi and Hatch are bad players, or prone to nervous excitement. But clearly something got in their heads. I wonder what it could possibly be...
Winner: The Orlando Pride
It's been a while. 609 days to be exact. That's not really fair, given that COVID left them with only four total games in 2020. But still...609 days is a long time to wait. The Pride didn't exactly dominate the Spirit. In fact, play that game back 10 times and you probably end up with Washington winning more than half the time. But it's a results-business and Orlando got the result. That has to be enormously encouraging.