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Challenge Cup Progress Report

How did the Challenge Cup go? Let's assign some early grades.

The NWSL regular season kicks off this weekend, but every team got an extended preseason this year, in the form of the 2021 Challenge Cup. This was a real competition, but also more of a prelude than a full event on its own. So I want to take a moment and reflect on what we learned from the competition, in the form of team-by-team progress reports.

Every team earned a passing grade here. That reflects the basic reality that this tournament meant very different things to different teams. Portland came in expecting to win, and they did. But other teams had more measured objectives. And while no one really had an entirely successful tournament, every single team had plenty of reasons to feel good about what they accomplished.

NJ/NY Gotham FC: A

They entered the Challenge Cup wanting to make a point and they absolutely succeeded. Not everything worked. The defense does not look up to the rigors of a full season, and I worry a bit for the midfield as well. But they certainly beat expectations by making it to the final, and showed enough genuine strength to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke. I’d still be pretty surprised to see this team in the top two or three spots on the table come midsummer, but they’re definitely a legitimate playoff contender. And if they can keep building on this success, the sky really might be the limit.

Racing Louisville: B+

They didn’t win a game, but they earned two draws and were very much in all four matches. That’s a major success for an expansion club that looked like it was only about 60% finished coming into the tournament. I anticipate significant struggles over the course of a full season, as the early energy starts to wear off and the holes start to get pierced. But I had inklings that this might be a truly awful team, and the Challenge Cup significantly eased those fears.

Portland Thorns: B+

By their own standards, winning the Challenge Cup was a fine result, but not a spectacular one. That’s mostly because they didn’t do a great job converting the many many chances they created over the course of the tournament. I do also have some small worries about the defense. It’s certainly fine, but does look a bit frail and discombobulated. Looking forward to the regular season, that strikeforce of Charley, Smith, Weaver, and Sinclair is both very good and incredibly deep. And the same goes for the midfield, where the second string would probably put up a good fight against any other midfield in the league. They’re certainly not unbeatable, but I wouldn't like to bet on it.

Houston Dash: B

The Dash were the only team besides Portland and Gotham to go undefeated, but two early scoreless draws kept them from challenging for a spot in the final. One the internationals returned, they looked great, obliterating KC and giving the Thorns a great game. In fact, I think Dash/Thorns might be the most hypeworthy matchup for the upcoming season. So it’s really just a testament to how much this team has improved that a solid 6 points feels like a tiny bit a letdown. The big question coming in was whether this team could score goals without Daly, Mewis, and Prince. And they certainly didn't answer it. That said, they don’t necessarily need to solve that problem. If they can keep a tight defensive ship while their attackers are abroad, they should be in fine position for the stretch run. But I’d feel a lot better about the Dash as serious contenders if they’d done a bit more here.

Orlando Pride: B

More than any other team, Orlando needed this tournament. They missed the last Challenge Cup due to COVID, so only had four games over the entirety of 2020. This was the first real test in a loooong time. And on the whole, the evidence was encouraging. The Pride won a game—though that was more about Ashlyn Harris standing on her head than anything else—and also managed two draws. A fine haul for a team that only managed 16 points over the entire 2019 season. I still have major doubts about this team, and they have potential problems on every single line. But for the first time in a while I can at least see possible answers to all the problems. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but it is progress.

OL Reign: B

The grade here is mostly a holding pattern, since I don’t think we’ll really get a sense of whether this team is a serious title challenger until more of their big-name internationals arrive. But we certainly saw glimpses of what this team could be, both in the positive and the negative sense. There was no better illustration than the match against Chicago—a game that the Red Stars thoroughly bossed, but where the Reign did enough to capitalize on their chances to steal a victory. Over the season, the Reign will hope to control more games on their own. But in the meantime, they have enough explosive attackers to make every game potentially winnable.

Chicago Red Stars: C+

Chicago feels like the biggest conundrum in the league. On paper, this looks like a great team. And they actually played very well in this tournament according to the underlying statistics. In fact, according to xG, they were the best team in the league (+2.9 xG difference, ahead of North Carolina at +2.2 and Portland at +2.0). The midfield seems like it should be one of the best in the league. Same goes for the defense. And there’s a lot of potential in the attack. On the other hand, they only actually scrounged two miserable points. Their strikers can’t convert. They gave away several absolutely atrocious goals. And the midfield (continuing a theme that’s several years old at this point) never quite seems to capitalize on its talent. It’s an enigma. If they keep underperforming what we all think is their true their ability, we’re going to hit an inflection point soon. Either we are all going to have to agree that they just aren’t as good as we think. Or we’re going to need to agree that the coach isn’t getting enough from them.

Washington Spirit: C

Very little went right in this tournament for Washington, with the one massive exception of Trinity Rodman. At the same time, nothing went catastrophically wrong. They got a bit unlucky (okay, very unlucky) against Orlando. But the deeper issue is that this team was supposed to break out in 2020 and it’s now 2021 and we’re still waiting for the breakout. I still think this is one of the best rosters in the league. In theory. They also have one of the strongest defensive units in the league. In theory. If that defense does in fact come together, they can afford to take some time to get everything else to click. But it sure didn’t happen in the Challenge Cup.

North Carolina Courage: C

The worrying thing for the Courage is that they basically did what they usually do in this tournament. It just...didn’t really work. They still generated a ton of low-quality, high-volume chances. But the quality and volume were lower. They still played with reckless energy. But without Mewis, Zerboni, Dahlkemper, and Erceg, it was shockingly easy for opponents to just cut through them and score. They conceded eight goals in the first three games! That said, the C grade here isn’t an indication that I think they’re in serious trouble for the season. For one thing, Mewis and Erceg will be back and that will help a LOT. Still, I do wonder if their struggles here might just have damaged their swagger enough to make them vulnerable. Alternatively, maybe a tiny bit of failure will replenish the underdog image and they’ll win ten games in a row to start the season. Only time will tell.

Kansas City: C-

KC only got blown out once—the 3-1 decimation by Houston. And they should take plenty of solace from keeping things tight against excellent teams like Portland, Chicago, and OL. At the same time, it took quite a bit of luck to keep those tight scorelines. They created very little, mostly scoring from defensive calamities that midseason defenses are unlikely to commit. And they struggled mightily to contain pressure, often trying to play more aggressively than the defense could handle. There were some bright spots, including nice performances from Amy Rodriguez, Victoria Pickett, and Lo’eau LaBonta. There’s material to work with here. Still, nothing they did in this tournament convinced me that they are serious playoff contenders this year.

Players of the tournament

For the NWSL Media Association, I selected three players for my tournament MVP ballot. But I have extra space here, so I wanted to flag two more than felt equally worthy of recognition.

  1. Trinity Rodman - She created more chances on her own than some entire teams. We should absolutely not expect her keep up this level all season. But even a modest regression to mean could still make her one of the best players in the league. Here’s hoping!

  2. Katie Naughton - Houston struggled to score goals without their internationals, but their defense was rock-solid all tournament, and Naughton was a huge part of that. Calm, collected, careful. She’s a quiet leader that helps tie the whole team together.

  3. Debinha - The collective wisdom seems to regard Debinha as the best player in the league right now, which I think is a modest overbid. But I get where people are coming from, because she’s really good, and only seems to keep adding new pieces to her game.

  4. Morgan Gautrat - It feels like absolute eons ago, but Gautrat was legitimately one of the four or five best players in the world for a significant chunk of 2015-2016. Injuries robbed her of her absolute top gear, but she’s now spent the better part of two years being vastly underrated. She was absolutely incredible for Chicago in this tournament, and a big part of why they created as many chances as they did.

  5. Lindsey Horan - I don’t even think she had an especially great tournament by her own standards, but it’s a testament to how dominant a force she is that even a solid B performance is enough to put her in the top tier. I could also have made a case here for Christine Sinclair. Or Simone Charley. And Sophia Smith looks like a nightmare to mark. Same with Morgan Weaver. Oh, and they also have Crystal Dunn. Yeah...the Thorns are going to be tough to beat.