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Megan Rapinoe And Tobin Heath Have Opted Out. But There’s Still Lots To Root For In The NWSL.

It hasn’t been the smoothest road, but American team sports are almost back.

The first league set to return is the National Women’s Soccer League, which kicks off Saturday with the Challenge Cup, a special, COVID-designed tournament. The NBA, NHL and MLS have similar tournament-style events planned to get their seasons back on track and likely will be watching the Challenge Cup closely for how it plays out.

Even before NWSL teams arrived at the host site in Sandy, Utah, the pandemic had already thrown the return plans for a loop. On Monday, before the league’s nine teams departed from their preseason camps, the Orlando Pride announced they had to withdraw because six players and four staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Sources in the league have blamed Orlando players for breaking team social distancing protocols and going out to bars in a state — Florida — that has been among the earliest to reopen such establishments.

With Orlando’s withdrawal chalked up to irresponsible individual behavior and not insufficient league protocols, the Challenge Cup is full steam ahead. Yet some of the league’s biggest stars, particularly members of the U.S. women’s national team, have opted out of the event over concerns of COVID-19 and the possibility of injury, including household names Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath.

This event, which will be broadcast on CBS and CBS All Access, will likely determine the champion of the 2020 season, given that there are no plans for a normal regular season afterward. The FiveThirtyEight Challenge Cup prediction model had the Orlando Pride in dead last anyway, so the team’s removal from the tournament doesn’t clearly help any single team.

Each team will play four games in the first round set by random lottery, and no one will be eliminated from that round, now that Orlando has dropped out. Instead, the first round will be used to determine seeding for a knockout stage with the league’s eight remaining teams.

Here’s a team team-by-team primer for the NWSL Challenge Cup:

North Carolina Courage

Key players opted out: None

Notable inclusions: 2019 World Cup winners Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, 2016 NWSL Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 27 percent

For the past two seasons, the Courage have won both the NWSL Shield for the best regular-season record and the postseason championship trophy. Just a quick glance at their roster helps explain it — there’s not a weak spot for the Courage, and unlike some other teams in this tournament, they won’t have any stars missing.

The Courage’s playing style is the soccer equivalent of a battering ram, relying on a breakneck pace and brute force to outscore opponents. Indeed, the Courage have led the league in shots taken (and shots on goal) for the past two seasons.

Their shot conversion hasn’t been the best (that honor went to the Portland Thorns for the past two seasons), but that’s not really the point. The sheer volume of the Courage’s attacking waves is difficult to defend for a full 90 minutes, and it’s easy to see why the Courage have led the NWSL in late goals — in the final 15 minutes of games — over the past two seasons.

There’s not much reason to doubt the Courage can win it all in Utah, but here’s one: The Courage have the best home record over the last two years, and the looming question is whether they can be as dominant at a neutral site.

Portland Thorns FC

Key absences: Tobin Heath (opted out), Adrianna Franch (knee injury)

Notable inclusions: 2019 World Cup winner Lindsey Horan, No. 1 and No. 2 overall 2020 NWSL draft picks Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, all-time international leader in goals Christine Sinclair.

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 12 percent

Considered the flagship club of the NWSL, the 2013 and 2017 champions start every season with high expectations. But they stumbled to the finish last year and were eliminated in the playoffs, which prompted some serious roster reconstruction over the offseason.

Players like Midge Purce, Ellie Carpenter and Caitlin Foord, who played prominent roles at multiple positions for the Thorns, are gone. Those exits plus the absence of Heath leave the Thorns without the potent wide players who were such a hallmark of the 2019 team.

Now questions linger about how the Thorns will play at the Challenge Cup. Will they return to a three-back system with wingbacks, or will they switch their system up? Will they continue their aggressive counter-pressing, swarming defensive style or go with something a bit more conservative?

Either way, the Challenge Cup is going to be an adjustment for the Thorns, a team that typically averages around 20,000 rowdy, chanting fans per home game. That best-in-the-league home support is part of why the Thorns have one of the best home records every season, but the Thorns will be playing in empty stadiums in Utah.

Chicago Red Stars

Key absences: Tierna Davidson (doubtful due to injury)

Notable inclusions: 2019 World Cup winners Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian and Alyssa Naeher

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 14 percent

It’s difficult to talk about the Red Stars without first talking about who they don’t have. Last year’s NWSL Golden Boot winner and MVP, Samantha Kerr, signed with Chelsea in the offseason and leaves an Australia-sized hole in the Chicago attack.

There’s no like-for-like replacement for a player who scored 34 goals in her 40 appearances for the club, and the Red Stars will need more players stepping up goal-scoring production. An injury to Alyssa Mautz, who the club announced tore her ACL earlier this week, certainly doesn’t help. Yuki Nagasato should contribute a few goals, as should Kealia Ohai Watt, but that still doesn’t get close to Kerr’s output.

The Red Stars have a solid roster otherwise. Defensively, Ertz and Casey Short are two of the best in the league (and if Ertz plays as a midfielder, she’s one of the best at that too). Midfielders Brian and Vanessa DiBernardo, who have both battled injuries, are in their best shape over the past two years.

But where will the goals come from? It remains to be seen.

Washington Spirit

Key players opted out: None

Notable inclusions: 2019 World Cup Bronze Ball winner Rose Lavelle

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 11 percent

After a last-place finish in 2017, the Spirit have slowly been on the rise, reaching fifth last year. But they also haven’t come particularly close to the upper echelon, and the club added 11 players in the offseason, including former UCLA standout Ashley Sanchez, whom the Spirit selected with the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft.

Notably, the club said goodbye to Mallory Pugh, who at 22 is still widely considered the future of the U.S. women’s national team but has lately struggled to hold onto a spot with the national team. Instead, the club looked to build around players who have steadily been on the rise in Lavelle and Andi Sullivan, a duo that has built a formidable central midfield partnership for the Spirit over the years.

The Spirit tend to play a less direct style than the rest of the NWSL, with the league-best passing accuracy and the second-most passes overall in 2019 to prove it. The question is whether they can convert that into attacking opportunities. The Spirit’s passing accuracy plummeted in the opposing half last season, and they weren’t potent enough in front of goal.

OL Reign

Key players opted out: Megan Rapinoe

Notable inclusions: 2019 World Cup winner Allie Long

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 11 percent

Formerly called the Seattle Reign and now owned by OL Groupe, the parent company of women’s soccer powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais, OL Reign has gone through more changes than just its rebranding.

Vlatko Andonovski, the team’s coach for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, was scooped up by the U.S. women’s national team, and the club brought in former Olympique Lyonnais coach Farid Benstiti, who has never coached in the United States before. The club has also added some notable international players, including Costa Rica’s Shirley Cruz and Japan’s Yuka Momiki, and American defender Alana Cook has joined on loan from Paris Saint-Germain.

But how it all comes together is anyone’s guess. It’s a new era for the Reign — and in unusual circumstances to be launching a new identity. The absence of superstar Rapinoe, who has declined to play in the Challenge Cup, won’t help.

Utah Royals FC

Key players opted out: Christen Press

Notable inclusions: 2019 World Cup winner Kelley O’Hara, former U.S. women’s national team striker Amy Rodriguez

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 10 percent

Over two-thirds of the Royals’ goals last season were scored by one of two players: Press or Rodriguez. Unfortunately for the Royals, Press has opted out of the Challenge Cup, which seems like a big problem for the de facto home team of this tournament.

But Press and Rodriguez often seemed to be on different pages when they played together — one would have a good game and score goals while the other struggled. That could allow Rodriguez to take the reins and return to her goal-scoring form that led FC Kansas City to back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015. That might be asking a lot of Rodriguez, but it’s the Royals’ best hope.

The Royals would have been better off had the rumored acquisition of German star Dzsenifer Marozsan not fallen through. But midfielder Aminata Diallo, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, and Spanish midfielder Vero Boquete should be able to create scoring opportunities.

Houston Dash

Key players opted out: None

Notable inclusions: U.S. women’s national team goalkeeper Jane Campbell, English forward Rachel Daly

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 7 percent

The Dash have never quite lived up to their potential. The second MLS-backed club to join the NWSL and the league’s first expansion team, Houston has perennially struggled, with a carousel of new coaches doing little to improve the situation.

It’s on second-year head coach James Clarkson to figure it out in Utah in a venue that could suit the Dash, who actually did better on the road than at home last year.

But the Dash have made a lot of roster changes without much time to build chemistry. They brought in defensive veterans Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton to bolster a backline that has been a liability over the years. Meanwhile, three of the Dash’s top five goal-scorers from last season are gone, with Sofia Huerta, Kealia Ohai Watts and Kyah Simon all departing in the offseason, along with longtime defender Amber Brooks.

Sky Blue FC

Key absences: 2019 World Cup winners Carli Lloyd (knee injury) and Mallory Pugh (hip injury)

Notable inclusions: 2011 World Cup winner Naho Kawasumi

FiveThirtyEight odds to win it all: 7 percent

The New Jersey-based team has been the NWSL’s offseason success story, thanks to a drastic turnaround in better housing conditions and facilities after players publicly lambasted the club. But whether they can make similar progress on the field remains to be seen.

For starters, Lloyd and new addition Pugh are both injured, dealing major blows to the Sky Blue attack. Defender Caprice Dydasco is also out. But Midge Purce was a workhorse last year for the Thorns and can plug in most holes around the field, so she’ll probably carry some of the scoring burden either up top or on the wings.

Still, we don’t really know how Sky Blue will play. Head coach Freya Coombe took over late last season, but it will clearly be an uphill battle. The team conceded more shots than any other in the NWSL last year, yet was last on the other end of the field in shots taken and shot conversion.

Given their significant absences, it’s hard to see how they do much better this year.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

CORRECTION (June 25, 2020, 2:02 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect year of the Portland Thorns’ first NWSL championship. They won in 2013, not 2012.

CORRECTION (June 26, 2020, 11:33 a.m.): An earlier version of the photo caption in this article incorrectly placed the action in last year’s NWSL title game. The photo was taken during the Courage’s semifinal match against Reign FC.


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