Portland Thorns FC’s upset of the North Carolina Courage and Houston Dash advancing on a penalty shootout against Utah Royals FC marked a rollercoaster first day as the NWSL Challenge Cup enters day two of the knockout stages. Prepare for all the action and read up on how all four clubs are preparing to punch their ticket to the tournament semifinals.
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC – 10:30AM MT
Saturday’s opening match features two upstart, possession-based teams in the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC. The Spirit’s young squad have impressed so far this tournament, nabbing victories against the Chicago Red Stars and Dash in the preliminary round. The Dash tested Richie Burke’s possession style the most, forcing the Spirit back to defend their lead in a five-back formation down the stretch. For Burke, he sees Saturday as a matchup of two midfield-possession sides, and a great test for his young players.
“We’re playing against a team of incredibly experienced players – players of caliber,” he said. “Estelle Johnson and [Gina] Lewandowski at the back are especially experienced and great. Sarah Woldmoe is experienced, and [McCall] Zerboni is someone who has transformed them. It’s a big ask for our team, but it’s something that we welcome. Let’s go play, let’s be us. It’s a massive challenge for these young players. If we get through it, we’ll refocus and go on the next match. We’ll take this one game at a time. It’s an exciting prospect, whatever comes at the weekend. It’s an exciting group to watch and be around.”
While this is the second campaign for Burke in Washington, Freya Coombe has been working to fully implement her own style of possession-based soccer for her first full season in charge in New Jersey. While initially slow out of the gate, a win against Houston and a good showing against North Carolina have many thinking that Sky Blue have hit their stride – including newly acquired midfielder Zerboni.
“I think we’ve established the style of play that we want to execute,” she said. “Now, the next thing is to put the ball in the back of the net. We need to improve what we’re doing in the final third, get some shots on goal. The attack going forward is important, especially in knockout games like this. That’s something we’re sharpening up this week.”
OL Reign vs. Chicago Red Stars – 8:00PM MT
OL Reign and Chicago have had similar tournaments to date with strong defensive showings that haven’t been supplemented with enough finishing on the other end of the field. The Reign have shown strong defensive structure and organization in all four preliminary matches, but have yet to find a spark in their attack with Jess Fishlock still working to full match fitness. Head coach Farid Benstiti has seen these positives so far, but knows that focus and precision are going to be key in breaking down the equally formidable Red Stars.
“Now, we are in the knockout rounds, so there is more pressure,” he told OLReign.com. “We have had good stretches during the first round, but we must now put everything in place for a total match where we are strong. We are both two clubs with strong defenses. We must be very precise with the ball and when we get opportunities, we must execute.”
While the Red Stars have had similar struggles to OL Reign, they’ve spent a big portion of their time in Utah emphasizing youth development and working out a litany of new acquisitions into Rory Dames’ style of play. The Red Stars’ persistence and cohesion paid off in their final match, defeating hosts Utah Royals FC in the dying minutes thanks to a Casey Short header. For one of those aforementioned new acquisitions, forward Kealia Watt, those three points have left a strong, positive mark in the team’s preparations for OL Reign.
“The ending of the last match and Casey’s goal was huge for us,” Watt said. “We really needed that momentum and that result to carry us through into the quarterfinals. That showed what Rory calls the “Red Star mentality” – you have to find a way to get a result. There’s no one better than Casey to finish that. I know we’re excited going into the quarterfinals off of that, and we feel good after that win.”