Another week of the NWSL 2021 Challenge Cup meant more signings, the return of international stars and, finally, a win for the Pride.
On Wednesday, April 21, the Orlando Pride took on the Washington Spirit. The Pride’s starting lineup featured New Zealand international and former Cardinal Ali Riley ‘10, while the Spirit featured returning USWNT stars and Stanford grads Kelley O’Hara ‘10 and Andi Sullivan ‘18, as well as Tegan McGrady ‘19.
Both teams wasted no time starting up the action as Orlando keeper and USWNT member Ashlyn Harris made two back to back saves in the 10th minute. Harris, who has fallen out of the USWNT camp over the last two call-ups, seemed to be making her case for the backup position this summer at the Olympic games.
A minute later, Sydney Leroux found the back of the net after a beautiful assist from none other than Alex Morgan. Within the first 11 minutes, Orlando was on the score sheet, and the moms of the squad were dominating.
In the 13th minute, Brazilian international Marta was given an early yellow after a scrap with O’Hara. Another notable act in the first half came from 18-year old Trinity Rodman, who chose to turn professional after COVID-19 canceled what would have been her first college season. Rodman has been a consistent star so far with the team and wowed fans in the 21st with her spin moves. Unfortunately, Rodman left the game in the 36th minute after taking a slight knock from Riley.
Orlando went into halftime with a 1-0 lead over Washington. The second half was highlighted by the keepers as both sides made incredible saves to keep their teams in the game.
Harris made two huge saves in both the 57th and 61st minute, keeping her team with a narrow lead. In the 64th minute, a bad tackle in the box led to a penalty kick for the Spirit. In what would be a near instant replay from Harris’ last game, she once again saved the PK, earning herself the player of the match award.
In the 71st minute, Orlando had another good look but was denied by Aubrey Bledsoe. Harris made another save in the 91st minute and sealed the victory for her team.
However before the game could conclude, O’Hara made a dangerous tackle on her international teammate Morgan, earning her second yellow card of the night and thus was removed from the contest. The tackle won O’Hara loads of criticism on social media as fans of the USWNT questioned O’Hara putting her teammate, who had just returned from pregnancy, in jeopardy before the Summer Olympics.
Regardless, the match ended in a 1-0 victory for the Pride, their first in over 600 days, leaving fans and players alike overjoyed.
Happening almost simultaneously, Tierna Davidson ‘20 and the Chicago Red Stars faced Lo’eau Labonta ‘15 and Kansas City.
The match started off slow with the most eventful occurrence being the substitution of Chicago’s Mallory Pugh off the field in the 35th minute. Pugh, who has been battling injuries over the past year, was finally said to be back in fitness and ready to compete. It came as a shock to fans as Pugh started the match, only to be subbed off a third through the game.
Katie Johnson of the Red Stars had the most promising chance of the first half but fired wide in the 40th minute. The game went into halftime 0-0.
The second half was full of more steam as USWNT player Julie Ertz was issued a yellow card in the 67th minute. In the 79th, Amy Rodriguez made an incredible run, assisted by KC keeper Abby Smith, to score a late goal, putting Kansas up 1-0 with just over 10 minute to play.
Three minutes later, the Red Stars answered back as Johnson made the score 1-1 in the 82nd minute. The game concluded tamely and resulted in a single point for both teams.
Late Wednesday evening, the Portland Thorns took on OL Reign at Providence Park in what was the first match for both teams with their international stars back on the pitch. Former Stanford player Sophia Smith ‘22 got the start for the Thorns while Sam Hiatt ‘20 was ruled out for yet another match with a head injury for the Reign.
The match started off as a Portland dream with Lindsay Horan making a worldie of a free kick from outside the box. That 17th minute goal put the Thorns up 1-0 early.
Thorns kept English international and OL keeper Karen Bardsley busy, often slotting Simone Charley right up the middle. Despite the frequent opening for Charley in the middle of the field, the Reign defense did not seem to learn. In the 37th minute, Horan took another shot which ricocheted off Bardsley to the feet of Charley. Poor clearance from the Reign allowed Charley to put it away, giving the Thorns a 2-0 lead at the half.
The second half was far more tame with saves left and right from Bardsley, but no goals from either side. The Reign finally put in USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe in the 58th minute, a shock to fans as neither she nor Welsh international Jess Fishlock started the match.
Despite efforts by the Reign, the match ended in a 2-0 victory for Portland. This victory gave Portland three straight wins and nine points in the west to seal their trip to the final.
Although there were no games this past weekend, a new signing and retirement lit up the news. Racing Louisville signed Gemma Bonner from Manchester City effective immediately. The English international is a great addition to the Louisville squad and brings in valuable experience from one of the best women’s clubs in Europe.
Bridgette Andrzejewski of the Houston Dash also announced this weekend that she would be retiring from the sport. The Dash thanked her for many years of dedication to the practice and wished her well on her next journey.
Coming off the weekend, fans were ready for “Monday Night Football.” The festivities started off with Racing Louisville facing NC Courage. Neither team hesitated to get in on the action.
In the 24th minute, CeCe Kizer, already a Louisville favorite, put her team up 1-0 with a header into the back of the net. Kizer is a relatively new addition to the league, drafted in 2019 to the Dash. Kizer was then taken by Louisville in the expansion draft and has become an early face of the organization.
However the Courage were not going down without a fight. Almost immediately, in the 33rd minute, Kristen Hamilton answered back with a header off a corner kick, putting the game back at level.
The game went into halftime a 1-1 draw, as fans tweeted out “no defense, just vibes.”
In the 57th minute, Brazilian international Debhina slotted in a goal, putting North Carolina up 2-1. The Brazilian player has recently been remarked as one of the best in the world, and is surely leading the Courage to early victories this season.
As the clock ran down, Louisville searched for an equalizer. In the 75th minute, after coming on in the 74th, Jorian Baucom scored her first NWSL goal off a cheeky side-of-the-foot flick. The home crowd went wild for her.
Unfortunately for the enthusiastic home fans, Debhina was not yet finished. A final goal by the Brazilian put North Carolina back up in the 85th minute. The match would end in a 3-2 victory for the Courage.
After two high-scoring, and high-conceding games for the Courage, fans were quick to tweet out that “the best defense is scoring all the goals.”
Monday night’s late game featured the Houston Dash traveling to Kansas City for their home opener. Kansas City’s starting squad featured Nicole Barnhart ‘05 in goal, making her first start of the season, and Labonta in the midfield. The Dash featured an abundance of players who recently returned from the international break, including starting goalkeeper Jane Campbell ‘17.
The game got off to a fiery start as USWNT player and star Dash midfielder Kristie Mewis fired one in from the edge of the box in the 25th minute. After only playing a few minutes for the national team during the most recent break, Mewis’ lethal left foot is making her claim for an Olympic roster position.
Nine minutes later, a surprising red card was issued to Campbell for wasting time. The call came as a surprise to both sides as the game was only 34 minutes in. In the 45th minute, Rachel Daly was brought down inside the box and awarded a penalty kick. Daly slotted the ball into the right corner as Barnhart dove left. The Dash went into the half with a 2-0 lead.
The second half got off to a slow start with a few missed opportunities on both sides. However, in the 71st minute, Canadian international Nichelle Prince assisted Mewis in her second goal of the night, putting the Dash ahead by three. With two left-footed goals on the night, Mewis has certainly proved she belongs on the national team this summer.
Quickly after, KC responded with a 77th minute goal from Michele Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos made a long run down the middle, assisted by Labonta, and launched the ball between Campbell’s arms.
The match ended with a 3-1 win for Houston in their first victory of the season. Overall, the firepower of the Dash’s international stars has them looking like themselves again.
Tuesday morning, Gotham FC announced the acquiring of midfielder Allie Long in a trade with OL Reign. The Reign will receive $80,000 in allocation money and a 2022 2nd round draft pick. The teams have also agreed to swap places in the Discovery Ranking order. Fans expressed their excitement as NY native Long will be returning to her home market.
Also on Tuesday morning, the league finally announced the regular season which will feature a total of 120 games, spanning from May to October. The full schedule can be found here.
Tuesday evening brought on more soccer as the Washington Spirit faced Gotham FC. The game featured former Cardinal McGrady, Sullivan and Jordan Dibiasi ‘19. The match did not feature USWNT player Kelley O’Hara ‘10, who was out on a one game red card suspension.
The game was calm, resulting in a 0-0 draw with most of the action being played out in the middle. Notable opportunities came from Midge Purce and Ashley Hatch. On the defensive side, Estelle Johnson was making tackles left and right, proving to be one of Gotham’s most valuable defensive assets.
Towards the end of the match, USWNT player Carli Lloyd of Gotham picked up a knock, causing her left cheek to swell up immediately. The lump caused the refs to stop play as Gotham trainers came on the field. Visibly annoyed, Lloyd did not want medical attention, or to be forced to the sideline. She would continue to play after being left back on.
Later that evening, OL Reign faced the Chicago Red Stars. From Stanford, Davidson would start for the Red Stars while Hiatt would remain on the sidelines for the Reign with a lasting head injury.
The game started out slow with the first real opportunity coming from Mallory Pugh for Chicago in the 18th minute. The strike from outside the box ended up just wide of the net.
Pugh would receive her second chance however, scoring in the 38th minute, putting the Red Stars ahead by one. Chicago however easily gave up their lead after poor defending in the 41st minute. A soft back pass from Julie Ertz and poor clearance from Davidson allowed Sofia Huerta to level the score. Teams would head to the locker room 1-1 at the half.
The Reign came into the second half with a new fire under their feet. In the 70th minute, Tziarra King made an incredible run towards the back line, flicking the ball back towards the box at the last second, and setting Leah Pruitt for a tap in goal. The Reign went up 2-1.
Nearly 20 minutes later, in the 87th minute, Tziarra King put one in herself, lofting one in from right inside the box. With three minutes of regular time left, the Reign were up 3-1.
In the 90th minute, Morgan Gautrat put in a redemption goal off a corner kick for Chicago. The game would conclude with a 3-2 victory for the Reign, and a lot of regular season work to do for Chicago.
A more important takeaway from the game was the constant misgendering of Canadian international Quinn. Quinn came out publicly in September 2020, issuing a statement saying their gender pronouns were they/them and that they identified as a trans individual. Following this, the league and team alike issued statements of support and commitment to an inclusive environment for trans athletes such as Quinn.
This support however has not been seen around the league. As commentators covered the game Tuesday night, they repeatedly misgendered Quinn, leaving fans angry. For a professional league committed to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all players, they have failed to support their players in the most simple way, respecting their gender pronouns. Complete information on the league’s policy for transgender athletes can be found here. For a more in depth analysis on the implications of the policy and the downfalls, check out this article from All for IX.
On Saturday, May 1, the North Carolina Courage will take on the Orlando Pride in what will help decide the fate of the east. The match will start at 7:30 p.m. ET on CBSSN.
On Sunday, May 2, Gotham FC will face Racing Louisville. The standings of both Gotham and NC will determine who plays Portland in the final. The match will air at 12:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+.
Later that day, the Houston Dash will take on the Portland Thorns. Regardless of the outcome, the Thorns have already secured their spot in the final, but the game should be interesting with a full strength Houston squad. The match will begin at 7:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+.
The final regular match of the Challenge Cup will be on Monday, May 3, when Kansas City takes on OL Reign. The match will have no implications for the western division and can be watched beginning at 8 p.m. ET on Paramount+.