Looking Back on the First Day of the Challenge Cup

recapping the Challeng Cup first day

The NWSL returned this weekend as the first team sport to make a comeback in the US since the start of the pandemic. And in classic NWSL fashion, there was a lot to cover even before kick-off. So let’s catch you up on the first day of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup.

Pre-Game Dramatics

We knew about half of the USWNT opted out of playing. Some chose not to play due to COVID concerns, while others were dealing with injuries. But then, a week before the tournament was set to start, the Orlando Pride dropped out after six players and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The tournament’s entire schedule had to be reconfigured. Reports state that several of the younger players went out to bars and clubs. In the middle of a pandemic. Don’t facepalm, unless you’ve washed your hands first. Just days before kick-off, veteran Pride defender and wife of goalkeeper Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris revealed she was exposed during practice and tested positive, only to test negative a few days later. But it doesn’t stop there. On the eve of the first game, the Houston Dash’s assistant coach quit. Would it even be the NWSL without all this mess? Nope. But that’s why we love it.

North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns

Prior to kick off, all players wore Black Lives Matter warm-up shirts. And once the national anthem started, all players on both sides took a knee.

It was a stark contrast to a few years ago when Megan Rapinoe was the only player taking a knee to protest police brutality and racism. When Pinoe first knelt, Crystal Dunn supported her, though she mentioned she was scared of doing it herself, “I’m scared for my job. It’s going to look different if a black girl on the team kneels.”

But this past weekend, she took a knee.

Speaking of Crystal Dunn, despite reports that she might not play, she suited up to take on the Thorns. This was also the first time fans got to see Becky Saurbrunn in a Thorns kit. Everyone’s excited to see what she can do with the Amy Adams of the NWSL, Emily Menges, whose defense is always solid. And today was no different. Canadian legend and record breaking lesbian Christine Sinclair was consistent as always, but didn’t get on the goal sheet. She was involved in a few plays, but we didn’t hear her name much during the match. The Great Horan was all over the box like it was free real estate. Will defenders ever learn not to leave her open during set pieces? Perhaps. But it won’t stop her. Despite a goal by Simone Charley, the Thorns couldn’t break through as they lost 2-1. With one goal and several playmaking moments, Brazilian player and lesbian Debinha was definitely the woman of the match.

Chicago Red Stars v Washington Spirit

The Red Stars had to deal with a lot of changes during the off-season. Sam Kerr headed over seas and so did girlfriend Nikki Stanton, but the addition of Kealia Watt (formerly Ohai) adds some attacking power to the team. With Julie “JJ” Ertz heading up the back line, Chicago was the favorite to win. But don’t count out the Spirit just because they’re young. And if you did assume they’d lose… You fool! Rose Lavelle put on a clinic as she led her team to a 2-1 victory over the Red Stars.

It wasn’t just goalscoring ability, but her passing was reminiscent of Tobin Heath’s skill on the ball. She showed everyone that she’s the future of the USWNT. Lavelle was definitely the woman of the match. But it was something that happened before the game that left a mark on fans. Just like in the first game, all players wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warm-ups. During the anthem, most players knelt. But some stood. I know you’re side-eyeing those players, but it’s not worth your time. What is worth your time was the moment between Julie Ertz and teammate Casey Short. Short was moved to tears as she knelt during the anthem. She no doubt had the same concerns as Crystal Dunn, but today she could openly protest without worrying about losing her job. 

If there is one image to define the NWSL, this tournament, and everything I love about women’s soccer it will be this one. The image of women supporting women was powerful enough, but when it was a white woman on her knees, crying with her black sister… It brought me to tears, too. JJ will never understand what it’s like to live as black woman, but she can understand her, she can support her, and she can fight beside her. I don’t know how people can see this and not understand this isn’t about a flag or a national anthem, it’s about people’s lives. The NWSL has always been overlooked by major sports networks. That has never stopped the women of the league from playing the best soccer on this continent while simultaneously using their platforms for good.