While sports leagues around the U.S. have combated coronavirus curveballs as they either plan to return or try to maintain their return-to-play competitions, the NWSL has been going about its business. After the Orlando Pride’s withdrawal days before the Challenge Cup competition in Utah was due to start, it’s been a rather straightforward procession for the league, at least as it relates to keeping the flow of matches going.
The preliminary matches are done, and we have seamlessly moved on to the knockout bracket. Seamless would be a good way to describe how the tournament’s top seed has operated. The North Carolina Courage—the league’s two-time reigning champions and three-time reigning Shield holders—were a perfect 4-0-0 in the preliminary round and have every bit the look of a champion in waiting.
The bracket was set Monday night following the Courage’s 2–0 win over Sky Blue FC, leaving the following matchups for the July 17-18 quarterfinals:
No. 1 North Carolina Courage vs. No. 8 Portland Thorns
No. 2 Washington Spirit vs. No. 7 Sky Blue FC
No. 3. OL Reign vs. No. 6 Chicago Red Stars
No. 4. Houston Dash vs. No. 5 Utah Royals FC
Here’s a closer look at the elimination matches—all of which will be aired on CBS All Access—split by sides of the bracket, and who should feel good about celebrating on the playground, moving on from Herriman to Sandy and securing places in the semifinals at Rio Tinto Stadium:
NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE vs. PORTLAND THORNS
Date/time: Friday, July 17, 12:30 p.m. ET
Preliminary round meeting: North Carolina won, 2–1
This is a rematch of the opening game of the competition, one that drew the spotlight for the players’ kneeling during the national anthem and was capped by Lynn Williams’s stoppage-time winner.
The Thorns are not your average eight-seed, and they’re a bit of a conundrum. They’re the only winless team in the competition, yet you get the sense that they’re still capable of competing with anyone. They had a brutal preliminary round schedule and came away with three draws, conceding only once after the opener. With knockout matches going straight to penalty kicks in the event of a draw, would it really be that shocking to see Portland, despite Becky Sauerbrunn’s hip injury that rules her out, hold the Courage and push things to spot kicks? The returns of Emily Menges and Lindsey Horan, who were held out of the preliminary round finale vs. OL Reign as a precaution, will certainly help.
In North Carolina’s favor is the fact that it’s been downright ruthless and is just getting stronger. U.S. national team forward Jessica McDonald made her first appearance off the bench in the second half of Monday night’s win vs. Sky Blue—a match for which manager Paul Riley trotted out a first-choice XI despite already having the top seed wrapped up. Williams is the tournament’s top scorer (three goals), and her 19 shots are 10 more than the next closest player (Horan). North Carolina’s seven goals were the most in the opening stage. The club is clearly on a mission, and while anything can happen in knockout soccer—especially knockout soccer between adversaries quite familiar with one another—you’d have to tab the Courage as the heavy favorite (unless Orlando pushes its luck stanning them).
HOUSTON DASH vs. UTAH ROYALS
Date/time: Friday, July 17, 10 p.m. ET
Preliminary round meeting: 3-3 draw
These teams unexpectedly played the most thrilling game of the competition to date, with Houston blowing a 3–1 lead—built behind Rachel Daly’s double—and Utah rookie Tziarra King’s scoring in the 89th minute to salvage the point.
It was unexpected, because neither side was pegged as an attacking juggernaut entering the competition, and that’s how the rest of the opening stage played out. Houston scored just twice after the opener, and Utah only once in the subsequent three games.
The similarities don’t end there. Houston enters after being blanked in consecutive losses to Sky Blue and the Spirit, while Utah comes in on the heels of shutout defeats to OL Reign and Chicago. They were separated in the table solely by the goals scored tiebreaker. If there’s a toss-up in the quarterfinals, it’s this matchup, though with Amy Rodriguez and Vero Boquete rested after sitting out the defeat to the Red Stars and Kelley O’Hara seeing her first action of the tournament in that match, perhaps the host team has a slight edge.
WASHINGTON SPIRIT vs. SKY BLUE FC
Date/time: Saturday, July 18, 12:30 p.m. ET
Preliminary round meeting: N/A
This will be the first matchup between the two sides in Utah, and the favorite will be coming in at less than 100%. Spirit star Andi Sullivan is out for the rest of the competition with a torn meniscus, while Rose Lavelle (ankle) and Jordan DiBiasi (hip) missed Sunday’s win over Houston.
Sky Blue, playing the entirety of the competition without injured U.S. national team forwards Carli Lloyd and Mal Pugh, has struggled to score, being blanked in three of the four matches. The outlier, a 2–0 win over Houston, displayed some of the club’s potential, with Paige Monagahan and Nahomi Kawasumi scoring highlight-reel goals. But the club will need to conjure up some more magical moments against a Spirit side that gave up four goals in the opening stage, third-most in the league.
If Lavelle and DiBiasi return to pair with impressive rookie Ashley Sanchez, you’d like the Spirit’s chances to avoid the upset.
OL REIGN vs. CHICAGO RED STARS
Date/time: Saturday, July 18, 10 p.m. ET
Preliminary round meeting: N/A
The other match on this half of the bracket is also a first for the competition, one between two sides that figured to be North Carolina’s top challengers, only to stumble their way through an inconsistent preliminary stage. That may have worked to their benefit, though, in that they’ll get to avoid the Courage until, potentially, the final.
The question for OL Reign is who will be available and how effective they can be. Bethany Balcer said she had a panic attack episode in the final preliminary match against the Thorns, posting a detailed statement about what happened.
The Reign did get Jess Fishlock back from a long-term injury, and Sophia Huerta made her club debut in the match, giving Farid Benstiti some new key pieces with which to work for the knockout stage. The club’s matches so far have largely been snoozers, with the Reign somehow finagling a third-place finish despite scoring just a single goal.
Chicago was marginally better on the attacking end, scoring twice as it adjusts to life without Sam Kerr. The last of those goals came from defender Casey Short, whose late header was the difference between a last-place finish and the sixth seed. Such are the fine margins in this tournament (for everyone behind North Carolina). Another low-scoring, close affair should be expected, though Red Stars’ supporters can take comfort in manager Rory Dames’s remarks that the early exits in the finale for U.S. internationals Morgan Gautrat (formerly Brian) and Tierna Davidson were precautionary and planned, respectively.
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