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Five things we learned at the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup

Rachael Kriger discusses five things that fans, reporters and anyone who watched the NWSL Challenge Cup learned this past month.
2021 NWSL Challenge Cup

The NWSL Challenge Cup will wrap up this Saturday with the Portland Thorns FC taking on Gotham FC — formerly Sky Blue FC — at home. It’s a bit of a different tale than last year, and a whole new tournament format. For starters, teams have not been secluded to one area. Playing in home markets have brought back a sense of normalcy.

There are fans in attendance too. While the stadiums have not yet reached 100% capacity, fans have certainly made their presence — and voices — known.

In addition, there are now 10 teams in the league, with Racing Louisville joining the fold. The Utah Royals were replaced by Kansas City, who are playing under a temporary name and crest for their first season of competition.

The Challenge Cup winner will be declared and then it’s off to the races for the regular season. Ten NWSL clubs start with a brand new slate for the hopes of retaining six of the coveted playoff spots, and expanded number from the previous four playoff spots.

Here are five things we learned at this year’s NWSL Challenge Cup.

5. Trinity Rodman is legit

I had some concerns about Trinity Rodman and how she would do in NWSL competition. Never once did I doubt the Washington Spirit player’s abilities and talents. However, I was concerned because I haven’t seen much of her to really figure out how she would fit into Washington and Richie Burke’s system.

Rodman is a U.S. youth national team player, but did not play a single college match. Rodman committed to the Washington State Cougars, but COVID-19 prevented her school from playing a collegiate season. Instead, Rodman waived her NCAA collegiate eligibility and decided to try her luck at the NWSL Draft.

Washington took her — and it’s easy to understand how Burke could be happy with the results.

The 19-year-old has already cemented herself as a starter, taking the pitch at the beginning of the match for three out of four contests. Her pass success rate is a strong 72.4% and she scored one goal against the North Carolina Courage, the mighty beast of the NWSL. She also provided an assist for fellow young teammate Ashley Hatch against Racing Louisville on April 15.

Rodman is the real deal. We got a glimpse of her talent in the Challenge Cup, and she can only build on that in the regular season.

4. Chicago needs to figure out its attack

The Chicago Red Stars were in the Challenge Cup Final last year against the Houston Dash, with the Dash lifting the trophy. Now, the Red Stars aren’t even close to sniffing the final. Chicago earned two points in the West Division, notching draws against the Dash on April 9 and Kansas City on April 21.

Chicago hasn’t been bad on defense, despite giving up five goals. In fact, Sarah Gorden was named to the Just Women’s Sports Best XI of the Challenge Cup. However, it’s the attack that should give Chicago major worry.

Kealia Watt has been on the team now for over a year, and she’s still not connecting with the midfielders. There is no doubt that Watt has talent and she proved to be an effective goal-scorer in Houston. However, the connection in Chicago hasn’t been up to par.

Katie Johnson scored against Kansas City, saving Chicago and giving them a draw. Against OL Reign to close out their Challenge Cup journey, Mallory Pugh scored her long-awaited Red Stars goal, along with Morgan Gautrat (nee Brian).

Chicago, on paper, has a roster with a massive amount of talent. However, goals are important to win soccer games and Chicago is having an issue with finishing in the final third. Does Rory Dames need to switch his formation? What about rotating his starters to figure out his best attacking option?

Chicago is a team that has made the playoffs every years of its existence in the NWSL. However, if they can’t score goals, that streak could come to an end in 2021.

3. The Pride’s best player isn’t a USWNT player

The player of the Challenge Cup for the Orlando Pride, for me, has been Taylor Kornieck.

Sydney Leroux and Ashlyn Harris round out the top three for me, but the best player for Orlando so far in 2021 has been the second-year player Kornieck. She gives the Pride a plentiful amount of height — standing tall at 6’0. Kornieck has proven herself to head coach Marc Skinner, starting all four of the Pride’s matches and only being subbed off once.

The midfielder is a utility player. She’s just as good on defense as she is on offense, making 11 clearances and blocking two shots. On offense, Kornieck helps the team on set pieces in two key ways. One, she’s a big target, so whoever takes the kick (usually Marta) can aim for her. Or, second, defenders will pile up bodies on Kornieck due to her height, leaving other players open for a shot.

Kornieck has taken eight shots and scored against Racing Louisville in the Pride’s opener. In the last three matches, Kornieck has gone a full 90 minutes. Skinner found something special with this 2020 draft pick.

2. Gotham are a real threat in the NWSL

Who would’ve thought a few years ago, when Sky Blue FC was battling reports about unprofessional conditions, that the club would make it to the Challenge Cup final? Gotham had a whole new rebrand right before the start of the season — which was executed perfectly by general manager Alyse LaHue — and the new look has brought a fresh new vibe on the pitch.

Players are happy to be with Gotham. Fans are reignited and excited about their team. The club is truly on the up and up.

Making it to the Challenge Cup final wasn’t the easiest task. Gotham sure didn’t make it easy on themselves with a 0-0 draw against Racing Louisville last Sunday. However, a big task stands in the way now of the club’s first-ever NWSL trophy: the Thorns.

Gotham is a legit team, though. Freya Coombe doesn’t care where Vlatko Andonovski wants Midge Purce on the national team, she understands that Purce is an attacker and plays her up top for club. Gina Lewandowski has been exceptional during the tournament. Having Caprice Dydasco back from an ACL injury has done wonders for the defense. Carli Lloyd hasn’t been great, but she knows how to play in final competitions.

Oh, and the team traded for Allie Long, bringing her home and inserting her immediately into the midfield.

Gotham is going to be a real problem for NWSL clubs in the regular season.

1. The Reign are only going to get better

The motto “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” should be hanging up in the OL Reign locker room. The Reign began the NWSL Challenge Cup later than all the other teams. A draw against the Dash and a loss against Cascadia rival Portland left them with one point in two matches.

However, the Reign picked up victories against Chicago and Kansas City to close out the tournament.

The combination of Shirley Cruz and Jess Fishlock in the midfield has been one of the most dynamic midfielder duos in the league. Tziarra King has been fantastic up front, scoring a big goal against Chicago. Karen Bardsley, in net, has done a good job despite only having one clean sheet. The return of Celia Jimenez Delgado has been in the favor of the Tacoma club.

On paper, the Reign are a really young team with some under-appreciated talent. In the summer, the age of the roster will trend upward, though. Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi will be joining on loan from parent-club Olympique Lyonnais. Also, there are now rumors that Eugénie Le Sommer will join in the summer, too.

The Reign could run into the Pride problem from the last few years — lots of individual talent, not translating into team talent — but those players are proven Champions League and French league winners. They will only make the Reign better when they arrive in the summer.

Farid Benstiti is going to have some tough benching conversations, though.

NWSL Regular Season Schedule

For the entire NWSL regular-season schedule, click here.



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