The National Women’s Soccer League second annual Challenge Cup is nearing its end as three matches over the weekend set the scene for the upcoming Challenge Cup final. North Carolina, Orlando Pride, and Gotham FC all entered the weekend with their tournament hopes still alive, while Racing Louisville FC, Houston Dash, and Portland Thorns closed out their group play with nothing on the line but pride. Here’s what you may have missed from the three-game slate over the weekend.
1. Courage and Pride close out with pyrrhic clean sheets
North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride entered their final Challenge Cup group match with a chance to advance. However, they played to a scoreless draw which ultimately served neither team, eliminating them from contention for the Challenge Cup final against Portland Thorns FC.
Both sides will try to look at the small silver lining of a clean sheet as they now turn ahead and begin to prepare for the regular season. It’s at least a minor victory for the Courage as they had previously struggled on the defensive side of the ball, conceding 8 goals over their previous three matches.
“We missed some huge chances. But the biggest take away for me was a clean sheet,” said Courage head coach Paul Riley in post game. We stuck with the two center backs for the full game, and they really stepped up for us. They absorb space well and we have good protection in front with Hailie Mace and Denise O’Sullivan. Ryan Williams was also very good defensively, and we knew we had a good grip when we got Merritt into the game, Carson Pickett was fabulous down the left side.”
Before this match, this tournament was a stark difference for a Courage side used to having a solid defense to go with their capable attack, and the team will likely keep improving things into the regular season as veteran center back Abby Erceg works her way back from a back injury.
After 2020 saw Orlando Pride withdraw from the inaugural Challenge Cup due to a COVID outbreak among players and staff, the team can now hang their hats on a third place finish with five points in the east division. The club closed out their Challenge Cup with a second consecutive clean sheet after conceding three goals in their first two group matches.
2. Gotham FC clinch East
The 2021 Challenge Cup final will feature Gotham FC after the east coast team ended their group stage with a scoreless draw against Racing Louisville FC, and advanced to the final on eight points. Gotham FC got off to quick start in their tournament with two wins, including a high scoring affair on April 20 against North Carolina that ended with seven goals, and a 4-3 final score in Gotham’s favor. The team enters the final somewhat snake bit in front of goal, as they closed out their Challenge Cup group play with two consecutive scoreless draws.
“We needed this result or better, so we’re certainly happy that we came away with the tie and that allows us to go into the Championship,” said assistant coach Becca Moros in post game.
“A big thing is consistency and we’re trending in the right direction. Some results can be misleading, so the biggest thing for us is looking at this with clearer eyes, going through some film and seeing what we need to improve on to prepare for Portland.”
3. Dash end Challenge Cup undefeated
The 2020 Challenge Cup champion Houston Dash won’t get a chance to defend their cup title, but closed out their 2021 campaign undefeated after going 1-0-3 and finished second in the West Division. The team welcomed their allocated players back to the squad and picked up their only Challenge Cup win on April 26 against Kansas City NWSL.
4. Portland’s cup to lose.
Portland Thorns FC close out their group stage with 10 points after finishing 3-0-1 in the West Division. The Pacific Northwest side locked up their place in the final with a game remaining in the division, and ultimately awaited the results of the east division to determine who they would face.
The club closed out their Challenge Cup group stage undefeated, with a 1-1 draw against Houston Dash, and will look ahead to the championship final, where they will likely be considered favorites. A roster full of talent with deoth off the bench and championship experience are among the key factors in their pursuit of more hardware in 2021.
More to track…
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