NWSL Challenge Cup enters first day of the knockout stages
Courage face Portland Thorns, while Royals FC battles Houston Dash in the nightcap
Rachel Daly heads home a goal in the earlier matchup between Houston and Utah (Photo credit: Matthew Levine/NWSL)
Rachel Daly heads home a goal in the earlier matchup between Houston and Utah (Photo credit: Matthew Levine/NWSL)

With the brackets set, the NWSL Challenge Cup moves into its first day of single-elimination quarterfinal matches at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.

Get ready for the day’s action by hearing what coaches and players had to say ahead of today’s two matchups.

North Carolina Courage vs. Portland Thorns FC – 10:30AM MT

The rematch of the tournament’s opening game also juxtaposes itself as a tale of two tournaments for two of the league’s brightest clubs. The reigning league champions North Carolina Courage have looked their usual, superb selves, winning all four opening group stage matches and posting the only positive goal differential in Utah thus far. Head coach Paul Riley said the Thorns were a team that pose a lot of challenges to the Courage – and represent a “derby” level matchup that is unique in the league.

“This is probably the biggest rivalry in the league,” Riley said with a smile. “We’re the two teams that have gone after it for the past couple of years. I think both teams are looking forward to it. We stopped taking elevators together now, stopped smiling at each other in the hallways. Nobodies saying hello anymore. It’s getting strange. We’re looking forward to it, though.”

The Thorns, on the other hand, have faced self-proclaimed “bumps and curveballs” in what is considered a rebuilding season for the Cascadia giants. Head coach Mark Parsons has heavily lauded how well the group has grown and invested in each other this year, remarking the Thorns have “played football better than we have for a long, long time.”

That sentiment was echoed by Meghan Klingenberg, who remarked that while goals will come, she’s proud of her side’s growth and cohesion thus far.

She also echoed the sentiments of Riley’s assessment on the feelings between both clubs.

“We hate them,” Klingenberg said. “They hate us. And I love that. To me, this is why we play. I play soccer because I love it, but I also love these big games. The way we prepare and all the time spent on energy and recovery is meant to be excellent at times that matter. And playing North Carolina in a knockout round is a time where we need to be excellent.”

Houston Dash vs. Utah Royals FC – 8:00PM MT

In the nightcap, Houston and Utah face off against each other in a rematch of the marquee match of the Challenge Cup. Much of the focus for the upstart Dash is around continuing to build their defensive structure and shape amidst an ever-changing lineup. For goalkeeper and co-captain Jane Campbell, the Dash must remain focused and organized to keep Utah at bay tonight – and she’s hoping those fresh new faces will step up.

“Through the first four games, our back line has changed pretty much every game with different players coming in and out,” she said. “That’s kudos to us and how versatile we can be. I think Katie [Naughton] and Meg [Oyster] have slid right on in and done an amazing job in the center, and having Chapman on the outside helping them has been immense. I love our back line. I love how unique we are with how we can interchange positions at the drop of a hat. I think they’ve done an amazing job and I’m honored to have them in front of me.”

Utah, however, find questions on the other half of the field – netting only one goal since Tziarra King’s late equalizer on June 30. First-year manager Craig Harrington says his group is excited by the prospect of the knockout rounds and is taking nothing away from his group’s cohesion and performances up to this point.

“I think our performances were excellent,” he said. “We feel we had opportunities in both halves of both games to score and put the game to bed, and we didn’t do that. But, there’s no pressure. As a coach I can be happy with how, over the four games, we’ve produced performances and moments to draw positives from. With my group, I’m delighted. We just need to take our chances like we did in the first two games of this tournament to make sure we’re in the semifinal.”

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