The first American team sports league returning to action amid the COVID-19 shutdown will be the National Women’s Soccer League.
Eight of the league’s nine teams will take part in an abbreviated tournament this weekend in Utah, dubbed the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. The competition will be the lone prize up for grabs for NWSL teams as the regular season has been ruled out.
Defending NWSL champion North Carolina Courage will be the team to beat heading into the competition, and it won’t have the luxury of making up for a slow start as the competition swiftly turns into a knockout round after each team completes a four-game preliminary stage.
As for the field, the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars make up the upper echelon of challengers, but in a short-term competition, each team has the ability to get off to a hot start and shake things up in the end.
One team that won’t be involved is the Orlando Pride, which was forced to withdraw after six players tested positive for COVID-19.
Here are SBI’s Power Rankings for the 2020 Challenge Cup, with a closer look at how the eight participating teams stack up heading into the competition:
1 – North Carolina Courage
The back-to-back NWSL Cup champions and three-time reigning Supporter’s Shield owners are the odds-on favorite to claim the Challenge Cup.
With the best roster in the league, the team did not need to make any adjustments heading into the new season, and it won’t be missing any of its headliners in the competition.
Line by line, the Courage’s quality affords it the best chance at taking claiming the cup.
Canadian international goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé will be protected by a sturdy line that features Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg.
Slotted as a midfielder, Crystal Dunn has value and can be productive on each line. Brazilian international Debinha will anchor a midfield that supports 2019 Golden Boot runner up Lynn Williams.
Goalkeepers: Stephanie Labbé, Samantha Murphy, Katelyn Rowland
Defenders: Lindsay Agnew, Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Daniels, Abby Erceg, Hailey Harbison, Kaleigh Kurtz, Hailie Mace, Merritt Mathias, Addisyn Merrick, Sinclaire Miramontez, Ryan Williams
Midfielders: Debinha, Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, Lauren Milliet, Denise O’Sullivan, Cari Roccaro, Meredith Speck
Forwards: Kristen Hamilton, Jessica McDonald, McKenzie Meehan, Ally Watt, Lynn Williams
2- Portland Thorns
One of the major stars missing the tournament will be USWNT winger Tobin Heath, but fortunately for the Thorns she has plenty of cover.
All-time international goal scoring leader and Canadian international Christine Sinclair leads the charge in the attacking department with rookies Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, who will be hungry to make an instant impact.
The attack will be complimented by a midfield bolstered with USWNT star Lindsey Horan and Costa Rican international Rocky Rodriguez, and more USWNT talent is found in defender Becky Sauerbrunn and goalie Adrianna Franch.
Heath’s absence will be felt, but the Thorns have enough to challenge the Courage in the short-term.
Goalkeepers: Bella Bixby, Britt Eckerstrom, Adrianna Franch
Defenders: Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Katherine Reynolds, Becky Sauerbrunn, Autumn Smithers, Christen Westphal
Midfielders: Celeste Boureille, Lindsey Horan, Emily Ogle, Rocky Rodríguez, Angela Salem, Gabby Seiler
Forwards: Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Anika Rodriguez, Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver
3- Chicago Red Stars
The 2019 NWSL runner-up comes in with a stacked roster with all of its stars present.
A cast of USWNT headliners featuring Julie Ertz, Casey Short, and arguably the best goalkeeper in the country Alyssa Naeher makes for a strong chance at taking the cup, but there is a glaring hole on the attacking end.
The team relied heavily on striker Samantha Kerr, who departed for Chelsea after last season.
Pressure will be on 2019 assist leader and Japanese international Yuki Nagasato to find a new primary target in an attacking squad devoid of international-level players.
Goalkeepers: Emily Boyd, Cassie Miller, Alyssa Naeher
Defenders: Camryn Biegalski, Julia Bingham, Tierna Davidson, Hannah Davison, Julie Ertz, Zoey Goralski, Sarah Gorden, Zoe Morse, Kayla Sharples, Casey Short, Bianca St. Georges
Midfielders: Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Savannah McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato, Cassie Rohan, Ella Stevens
Forwards: Makenzy Doniak, Rachel Hill, Katie Johnson, Sarah Luebbert, Zoe Redei, Michele Vasconcelos, Kealia Watt
4 – OL Reign
Undergoing a rebrand after being acquired by French giant Olympique Lyonnais, Reign will inherently look a little different on the field as well.
Head coach Farid Benstiti picks up where now-USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski left off, and the job will be done without the services of Megan Rapinoe.
Last year Reign managed to make the playoffs without Rapinoe for most of the campaign, but however talented, it will be playing through an implementation phase under Benstiti.
2019 league rookie of the year Bethany Balcer led the team in goals last year, with regular contributors Jodie Taylor and Darian Jenkins also available in the attacking end.
USWNT’s Allie Long and New Zealand international Rosie White will anchor the midfield supplying Balcer and company, and a lethal combination could be found.
Goalkeepers: Michelle Betos, Casey Murphy, Carly Nelson
Defenders: Lauren Barnes, Amber Brooks, Alana Cook, Steph Cox, Machaela George, Madison Hammond, Celia Jiménez Delgado , Adrienne Jordan, Kristen McNabb, Taylor Smith
Midfielders: Morgan Andrews, Shirley Cruz, Jess Fishlock, Kelcie Hedge, Allie Long, Rebecca Quinn, Dani Weatherholt, Rosie White
Forwards: Bethany Balcer, Sofia Huerta, Darian Jenkins, Mariah Lee, Nicole Momiki, Jasmyne Spencer, Jodie Taylor
5- Utah Royals
After finding itself four points short of the 2019 playoffs, the Royals brought in a new coach in the form of Englishman Craig Harrington who was an assistant at Chicago Red Stars the last two seasons.
The team’s strength will be captain Amy Rodriguez’s ability to lead from the front, and USWNT defender Kelley O’Hara anchoring the back.
The team will also be without star-striker Christen Press. The absence of her ability to create chances and goals from thin air will see the Royals going through Harrington’s head coaching foray without Press’ cheat code moments.
Goalkeepers: Nicole Barnhart, Abby Smith, Melissa Lowder
Defenders: Elizabeth Ball, Rachel Corsie, Taylor Leach, Gaby Vincent, Katie Bowen, Kelley O’Hara, Mallory Weber, Marissa Sheva, Michelle Maemone, Maddie Nolf
Midfielders: Vero Boquete, Diana Matheson, Desiree Scott, Chestley Strother, Lo’eau Labonta, Aminata Diallo, Gunny Jonsdottir, Kate Del Fava
Forwards: Brittany Ratcliffe, Amy Rodriguez, Arielle Ship, Tziarra King, Taylor Lytle, Holly Daugirda, Raisa Strom-Okimoto
6- Washington Spirit
Like Utah, Washington narrowly missed out on the 2019 playoffs, but it doesn’t match the firepower.
In head coach Richie Burke’s second season, the star of the show will be USWNT regular Rose Lavelle. Apart from her, the questions about her supporting cast will be if the team brought in any difference makers in the NWSL draft.
In all, the five rookies highlighted in bold below will be heading to Utah hoping to establish themselves.
Goalkeepers: Aubrey Bledsoe, Devon Kerr, Katie Lund
Defenders: Tegan McGrady, Sam Staab, Paige Nielsen, Jenna Hellstrom, Brooke Hendrix, Tori Huster, Kaiya McCullough, Natalie Jacobs
Midfielders: Dorian Bailey, Jaye Boisierre, Jordan DiBiasi, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Rose Lavelle, Meghan McCool, Jessie Scarpa, Andi Sullivan
Forwards: Averie Collins, Bayley Feist, Ashley Hatch, Katie McClure, Ashley Sanchez, Crystal Thomas, Kumi Yokoyama
7 – Houston Dash
A team that found itself farther away from last year’s playoff race, the Dash ended up battered with injuries by the end of the campaign.
The tournament offers a blank slate for head coach James Clarkson in his second season, and the additions of defenders Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster from Reign and Red Stars respectively should help sturdy the back line that ended with a -15 goal differential a year ago.
Apart from that, the team largely resembles the disappointing 2019 squad and Dash fans will be hoping it doesn’t run in to depth issues once again.
Goalkeepers: Jane Campbell, Amanda Dennis, Lindsey Harris
Defenders: Allysha Chapman, Katie Naughton, Megan Oyster, Ally Prisock, Erin Simon
Midfielders: Shea Groom, Haley Hanson, Cece Kizer, Kristie Mewis, Christine Nairn, Cami Privett, Sophie Schmidt, Bri Visalli
Forwards: Bridgette Andrzejewski, Rachel Daly, Jamia Fields, Veronica Latsko, Maegan Kelly, Kayla McCoy, Nichelle Prince, Katie Stengel
8 – Sky Blue FC
After a disappointing 2019, Sky Blue will open the challenge up without its two best players as the duo of USWNT forwards Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh are absent due to injury.
Pugh came over from Washington Spirit after being swapped for four draft picks that Sky Blue may have needed in retrospect as its attacking department will be thin.
Goalkeepers: Didi Haracic, Megan Hinz, Amanda McGlynn, Kailen Sheridan
Defenders: Sabrina Flores, Mandy Freeman, Estelle Johnson, Gina Lewandowski, Kaleigh Riehl, Erica Skroski, Chantelle Swaby
Midfielders: Cassidy Benintente, Nicole Baxter, Jennifer Cudjoe, Elizabeth Eddy, Naho Kawasumi, Margaret Purce, Domi Richardson, Madison Tiernan, Sarah Woldmoe, Kenie Wright, McCall Zerboni
Forwards: Imani Dorsey, Paige Monaghan, Ifeoma Onumonu, Evelyne Viens