In 22 games over the past month, the NWSL Challenge Cup saw breakout performances from the league’s goalkeepers, three playoff games decided on penalties, quarterfinal upsets of the top two seeds, and, after teams had combined for just one goal in four quarterfinal matches, a five-goal game in the semifinals.
On Sunday afternoon, the tournament will end with the Houston Dash or Chicago Red Stars holding up their first NWSL trophy.
The final match of the tournament will be held at Rio Tinto Stadium in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. The broadcast kicks off on CBS at 12:30 p.m. Eastern, and FiveThirtyEight’s Club Soccer Predictions give the Red Stars a 59 percent chance to win. Here’s what to watch for.
Even when no one else had confidence in them, the Houston Dash believed they could win. With their 1-0 semifinal victory over the Portland Thorns, the Dash reached their first final in club history. Before this tournament, they hadn’t even qualified for the playoffs.
Forward Rachel Daly said the semifinal win was proof of how much the team believes in itself, including the starters, bench and staff. She said the team showed grit.
“The city of Houston’s behind us,” Daly said. “I think a lot of people have doubted us in the past. Again, I always harp on that. The respect we have for each other and the belief we have in this locker room is phenomenal, and I think we have to take that into the next match in order to win.”
So far, Daly has scored three goals in the Challenge Cup, tied for the league lead with Lynn Williams of the North Carolina Courage and up one on Dash teammate Shea Groom. If Daly scores again, she’ll surpass Williams and be in position to win the golden boot for the tournament.
Despite the wear and tear of the tournament, Houston has suffered few injuries. The Dash missed Christine Nairn and Megan Oyster against Portland, but overall, the team seemed to benefit from the longer break between group play and the knockouts. Houston is also better if Nichelle Prince can create consistent chances, along with Kristie Mewis and Bri Visalli.
The Dash are up for the challenge. Before the semifinal, Daly talked about controlling their emotions, and they’ll have to continue to keep those feelings in check to win it all against an experienced Chicago team.
Chicago Red Stars
Chicago has been here before.
The Red Stars have playoff experience, including the 2019 NWSL championship game. That history likely helped against an inexperienced Sky Blue squad in the semifinal; Chicago won 3-2 to advance to its second consecutive final.
But the Red Stars also looked worn down after Wednesday’s match, a visible reminder of the fact that these teams have played six games since June 27. Though Chicago rotated its lineup, it still had to face the Spirit, Thorns and Courage to start group play. The Red Stars also lost a number of players during the tournament; some are questionable going into Sunday.
Against Houston, players to watch include Bianca St. Georges, who scored and notched an assist against Sky Blue and had an overall outstanding tournament. This will also mark Kealia Watt’s first game against her former team. Watt didn’t score in the semifinal but contributed in a massive way on the defensive end. She’ll be important on both sides of the ball on Sunday.
Red Stars coach Rory Dames complimented Savannah McCaskill, Katie Johnson and other young players after the semifinal. He’s willing to give them the chance to play in the big game, which can benefit them both now and in the future.
“We’ll continue to get players experience,” Dames said. “We’ll continue to give players opportunities in these kinds of situations, and that’s the only way that they can grow, because you can’t replicate it.”