The Chicago Red Stars have all the motivation to win the NWSL Challenge Cup after suffering a 4-0 loss to North Carolina Courage in the 2019 NWSL Championship game to end last year. The second place team has seen sustained growth over the past few seasons under long-term coach Rory Dames and hopes to secure silverware with a veteran club with playoff experience. Head Coach: Rory Dames (since 2011) 2019 Record: 14-2-8 (44 pts, 2nd Place) Player You Should Know: Yuki Nagasato Nagasato is a name that is familiar to Red Stars fans but not one that may be on the top of most casual NWSL fans. The Japanese international was second in scoring for the team and now steps into the lead striker role following the departure of Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr. The 32-year-old has been with the team since 2017, with a small time away to play in Brisbane, and had her best season in 2019 with seven goals. She has also tallied 58 goals for the Japanese national team in a career that has spanned 15 years. Under the Radar: Hannah Davison Chicago isn't known for giving young players much of a platform these days but the Challenge Cup may be the type of tournament defined by unproven players. Davison, a defender from Northwestern University, was selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft and overshadowed by the first overall picked Tierna Davidson. While in any other year Davison may be seen as a non-factor, 2020 has placed shackles on teams and draft picks may be the decider on many games. Davison, a defender, could prove to be an important substitute in the competition. Offseason Moves: The biggest move this offseason for Chicago has been the departure of Sam Kerr to Chelsea. Losing a Golden Boot-winner is never a preferable position to be in. However, Chicago is loaded with veteran talent and a coach that has a history of producing regular season results. Kerr's output will certainly be missed but there is an argument that there was a bottleneck in the forward position that has now created opportunity. What Makes Them Exciting: The Red Stars were the second highest scoring team in the league last year and, while missing Kerr, they'll still be a force moving forward. With veteran players like Nagasato, Savannah McCaskill and Vanessa DiBernardo, Chicago is hoping to have a more well-rounded attack at the Challenge Cup. While it should be expected that there will be some stutter starts, the NWSL runners-up are not a team that will produce many boring games. Matchups: June 27th: Chicago Red Stars vs. Orlando Pride July 4th: Chicago Red Stars vs. Utah Royals July 9th: Chicago Red Stars vs. Houston Dash July 13th: Chicago Red Stars vs. Sky Blue FC
Why They Can Win the Cup: The Red Stars won't be the runaway favorite, and the loss of key players may knock them down some lists, however they should be considered a team to beat in Utah. After two straight seasons of being battered by North Carolina, the Red Stars will be looking for revenge and a lighter schedule will help them gain their confidence heading into the knockout phase of the competition. Biggest Challenge: Replacing Kerr's output. While it should seem that they have the options to score goals, they will need to accomplish the task in order to sooth concerns from the fanbase. The unknowns around the roster and conditions will also play a factor but the schedule is soft enough for the Red Stars that they should have no issues qualifying for the knockout stage. Predicted Finish: First place is not out of the question for a Chicago team that will play both Orlando and Sky Blue. The path is clear for them to win all of their group stage games and it appears that only their own inability to adapt may be their toughest opponent. Something Random: For any fans of independent cinema, the 1998 film SLC Punk has given us a glimmer into what it is like in Salt Lake City. It is a town that has beautiful scenery and a sleep-away feel that may drive some who seek a faster life crazy. However, it may provide the perfect backdrop for focusing on soccer since there isn't much else to do. Given the current situation in the United States, the NWSL is poised to be the most stable of all the sports leagues upon their return to play.