• Charles Olney

NWSL Challenge Cup Best XI

The Challenge Cup is over, and the Houston Dash have been crowned champions. We also have the full slate of awards—from tournament MVP to best rising star to Best XI. In past years, the league has come under some intense scrutiny for the Best XI picks. The inclusion of a fan vote is one thing, but the results from 2019 were hard to parse even accounting for some potentially strange fan preferences.

This time around, the picks were a little strange, but far better than we’ve seen before. If you can forgive the weirdness of the Golden Glove (and clear best keeper) not managing to make the Best XI—and can forgive some peculiar stylistic choices about how to present the XI—it was reasonably close to reality.

Still, we all have our differences of opinion, so I wanted to share my theoretical ballot. Theoretical because my original vote (cast before the semifinals) was lost in the system. Fortunately, they extended the deadline to let us vote after the semis with a bit more information. Unfortunately, they extended the deadline by about seven hours after the semis, so I ended up missing it.

Still, I prefer to assess once the whole tournament is done. So this is my call based on the full set of games. Obviously, the Dash and Red Stars had more games to work with than anyone else. But quite a few players from the earlier exits did enough in limited minutes to show up here.


Forward

Rachel Daly was named tournament MVP, and I think that’s just about fair. She scored three goals and assisted two others. And goals are the currency of the game. But in my opinion, her best games were those where she didn’t add to the scoresheet. She brought dynamism and aggression to the Dash attack, leading the charge that pressured opponents and made their lives hell. And while she did struggle to make an impact in games more often than you’d like, it was never for lack of effort. The Dash won this tournament in large part because of their commitment and team effort. They could never have done that without Daly.

Ifeoma Onumonu was the striker who felt closest to unplayable. While Sky Blue didn’t offer much going forward, almost everything they did create came through Onumonu. She was strong on the ball, intelligent in her runs, and did a fantastic job to build play and spread the attack. Here’s hoping for more like that going forward.

Finally, Lynn Williams did exactly what Lynn Williams always does: she regularly took her defenders to the cleaners, created an outrageous number of chances in the process, scored a fair share, and still got criticized for not being more clinical. It’s absolutely true that Williams fails to convert chances like you’d expect from a world class striker. Which is fortunate for everyone else. Because if she was a clinical finisher, her incredible skills in every other part of the game would put her in the conversation for best player in the world. As it is, she’s ‘just’ the most consistent and most devastating forward in the league.

Midfielders

Debinha continues to improve every year. I spent a fair time criticizing her in her early days for being a luxury player—capable of spinning some magic, but also wasteful in possession and listless in defense. That’s no longer the case. She still turns the ball over a bit more than you’d like. But that’s just about the only negative to her game. She is ruthless, relentless, and irrepressible. North Carolina is filled with incredible players. But Debinha was the MVP of the final last year, and probably the best player in this tournament this year, too. It's just a shame we only got to see her play five games.

I’ve been a huge Shea Groom booster for years, so it was thrilling to see her finally back in her element. Groom isn’t quite a classic Number 10—as her passing numbers over the tournament make clear. But she’s a perfect fit for the way Houston want to play: aggressive, attacking, willing to take huge risks for a big play. And willing to put everything on the line to create the conditions for a big moment. For those who watched her closely in her final year at FCKC, the only surprise is that it took two down years for her to finally come into her own.

Sarah Woldmoe has quietly been one of the top players in the NWSL for years now. But this was probably her best run of games yet. She didn’t turn any big corners or unlock any special new potential. She simply played the same calm, consistent game she’s always played. But it was what Sky Blue desperately needed. McCall Zerboni got many deserved accolades for bringing a new steeliness to the Sky Blue midfield and Jennifer Cudjoe was justifiably praised for her clarity and vision. But Woldmoe was the key player for Sky Blue, and a huge part of why they were able to turn the ship around after a timid start.

Defenders

Jaelene Daniels is not well-liked, for reasons that are well known. But there’s just no denying her ability. I’m not certain that she is the best left back in the world, but I know that anyone who wants to make the case for someone else will have a tough time explaining how they’re better than her. Her crossing keeps improving, her defending only gets stronger, and her grace on the ball is far more reminiscent of a technical midfielder than a fullback. She was in the running for tournament MVP in my book until Carolina’s early exit. It’s hard to overstate her importance to that team.

Speaking of players who are widely recognized as excellent but still managed to get underrated, Abby Erceg was probably the best defender in the tournament. So many other players from North Carolina get more coverage, but Erceg was a rock in the back, using her height to dominate in the air and using her intelligence and footwork to keep the backline secure. She’s not a flashy player, but she just gets the job done. It’s no surprise that Paul Riley has built his team around her.

Julie Ertz had a relatively poor tournament by her own incredibly high standards. But it shows just how high those standards are that even an underperformance still put her on my Best XI. And really, the ‘low’ points mostly came in the final two matches, where she made a few uncharacteristic mistakes and also just looked...well...a little bit tired. But before that, she was the imperious Julie Ertz we all know and love: controlling the game from the back or the middle, and spending plenty of time in the final third as well.

Haley Hanson only spent a little time at right back in the group stage, but earned her way into my Best XI with some superb performances in the knockout stage. She is really a holding midfielder by nature, and I hope she returns to that role going forward. But for this tournament, her flexibility gave the Dash some critical protection in the one spot that looked really weak. For a team with very little attacking width, Hanson offered range and energy down the right flank without sacrificing defensive solidity. Her placement played a big role in the Dash keeping three clean sheets to close out the tournament.

Goalkeeper

I’ve run out of superlatives for Kailen Sheridan. She is another player where I wouldn’t go so far as to definitively assert her status as the best in the world, but...I sure don’t know who I think is better. She remains an excellent shot stopper, with soft hands that let her catch balls everyone else would punch or flap away. She’s made big improvements in the air on crosses and controlling the box. And her one relative weakness, playing the ball on the ground, has now been turned around into a modest strength. I almost never vote for a goalkeeper in an MVP or Golden Ball race, but I had Sheridan on my shortlist.

Second XI

Forwards: Amy Rodriguez - Ashley Hatch

Midfielders: Kristie Mewis - McCall Zerboni - Danielle Colaprico – Sophie Schmidt

Defenders: Steph Cox - Paige Nielsen - Katie Naughton - Elizabeth Ball

Goalkeeper: Bella Bixby