As the NWSL Challenge Cup heads into its penultimate matchday, the four remaining teams will feel their chance at capturing silverware has never been greater, with the top three seeds being eliminated in the quarterfinals.
The Portland Thorns shocked the number one seed and defending NWSL champion North Carolina Courage to leave the race for the Challenge Cup wide open. After going undefeated in the preliminary round, the Courage seemed to be on an inevitable path of domination. In their absence there is no clear favorite to win the competition, leading to the most intriguing games to date.
The other three semifinalists all advanced via quarterfinal penalty shootouts, with goalkeepers stepping into the spotlight. U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher headlined a list of impressive shot-stoppers, and her Chicago Red Stars could be considered the favorites heading into the semifinals.
The Thorns will face the number four seed Houston Dash, the new highest ranked seed of the tournament, while the Red Stars take on Sky Blue FC in the other semifinal.
Here is an closer look at the semifinal round of the NWSL Challenge Cup:
Portland Thorns vs Houston Dash
If the Thorns wants to beat the Dash, another strong performance from third-string goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom may be required. The hero of the quarterfinal upset of the Courage, Eckerstrom accumulated eight saves and a clean sheet in place of injured starter Bella Bixby. Lindsey Horan was substituted in the quarterfinals with an injury knock, and the Thorns will hope Horan is up to the task on Wednesday.
The Dash have not scored in regulation since July 4th in their second game of the Challenge Cup, but when the Dash’s offense catches fire, opposing teams struggle to keep up. There is no better time for English striker Rachel Daly to declare herself one of the league’s best by guiding the Dash to the finals.
Chicago Red Stars vs. Sky Blue FC
Both teams needed to win penalty shootouts in the quarterfinals to advance to the next round. Chicago’s star-studded defense consisting of Julie Ertz, Casey Short, and Alyssa Naeher in goal keeps the Red Stars competitive in most games, but they desperately need to create more chances in the attacking third. The Red Stars will bank on Rachel Hill and Kealia Watt to score their first goals of the Challenge Cup.
One of the surprises of the tournament, Sky Blue could stun the NWSL with a victory over the Red Stars to reach the finals. To do that, Kailen Sheridan must remain one of the competition’s best goalkeepers. Sky Blue has only scored in one game in the Challenge Cup. Look for Paige Monaghan, Ifeoma Onumonu, and Nahomi Kawasumi to try to buck that trend.