Sunday’s NWSL Challenge Cup final will mark a historic moment in the for whichever club can lift the trophy. Neither the Chicago Red Stars or Houston Dash have never won a championship since entering the league, and both teams will feel they are well-positioned to engrave their names into the record books when they meet on Sunday.
A finals appearance would not have been unexpected for the Red Stars a month ago. Despite their lack of titles, the Red Stars have an abundance of playoff experience. Most recently, they were 2019 NWSL finalists, ultimately losing to the North Carolina Courage.
The Red Stars finished the preliminary stage with four points thanks to a win against the Utah Royals and a draw versus the Portland Thorns. Knockout victories over OL Reign and Sky Blue propelled a Red Stars team that was initially slow out of the gate directly to the finals. Their date with the Dash means they will have played every team in the Challenge Cup by tournament’s end.
Rory Dames has shown his side can keep clean sheets, win penalty shootouts, and edge opponents in high-scoring thrillers such as the semifinals against Sky Blue FC. However, the starting lineup is far from confirmed heading into the competition’s finale.
U.S. Women’s National Team players Casey Short, Morgan Gautrat, and Tierna Davidson did not feature in the starting 11 in the semifinal match. Japanese international Yuki Nagasato did not start in the last game as well. If one or more of these players miss out, it will be a blow to the Red Stars, who may finally be able to jump the last hurdle and claim a championship.
The key absences are an added difficulty for a team who is yet to fully replace the production of NWSL all-time leading goal scorer Sam Kerr, who left for Chelsea after last season. Rachel Hill and Savannah McCaskill recorded their first goals of the Challenge Cup against Sky Blue, and Dames will look towards those two as well as new acquisition Kealia Watt, to provide the firepower against the Dash.
The Red Stars possess a lot of game changers on defense as well. Julie Ertz will attempt to put her semifinal own goal in the rearview mirror as she continues to anchor the back line. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher can add to her World Cup winning resume by shutting out a Dash team spearheaded by explosive striker Rachel Daly.
Daly scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals against the Thorns, and currently leads the Golden Boot race with three goals. The Dash’s unquestioned leader, Daly’s work ethic and knack for the goal could be the difference in Sunday’s encounter. Shea Groom will try adding to her goal tally as well, currently sitting at two.
The Dash were one of the tournament’s biggest surprises by jumping to a quick start after scoring five goals in their first two games against the Utah Royals and OL Reign. They suffered a three-game scoring drought shortly thereafter but managed to advance past the Royals in the knockout on penalties.
James Clarkson, the current head coach for the Dash, manages a club that has never qualified for the NWSL playoffs and has never had a winning season in its seven-year existence.
Unlike their counterparts, the Dash have stayed injury-free up to this point in the tournament. Look for the Dash to be threatening on the counter with Daly, Nichelle Prince, and Bri Visalli running onto through balls from Kristie Mewis.
Goalkeeper Jane Campbell, on the back of numerous strong performances so far, will be counted on to continue shutting down the Red Star’s attack. She has recorded two clean sheets in the Challenge Cup.
The tournament enjoyed increased exposure as the first professional team sport that returned to competition in the United States, although there were some hiccups along the way. The Orlando Pride withdrew from the Challenge Cup due to a COVID-19 outbreak within their team before entering the bubble, and high-profile U.S. Women’s National Team stars such as Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath opted out of the tournament.
Despite those absences, the NWSL Challenge Cup has marched on and become a successful event, with Sunday’s final a chance to provide a fitting ending, as well as some history for the winner.