NWSL Challenge Cup Quarterfinals Recap: Curses, Clean Sheets, and Penalties

recapping the Challeng Cup first day

Would it be the NWSL if the quarterfinals weren’t filled with drama, supposed curses, and bad officiating? Of course not! And if you missed this drama-filled weekend, read on for our recap of the NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals.

Cursed

We should address the curse. No, not the shield curse. That’s only for regular seasons. I’m talking about the Orlando Pride curse. Remember when they consistently placed bottom of the table despite having several of the world’s best players on their roster? A preposterous display of hubris, but alas… Then, they had to drop out of the tournament because several of the players and staff tested positive for COVID-19. Well, that didn’t mean they couldn’t still participate. During the tournament, the Pride Twitter account would choose a team to support. And 95% of the time, that team would lose. Classic NWSL curse.

North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns.

Everyone came into this game expecting the last place Thorns to be eliminated by the first place Courage. Myself included. I was so glad to be wrong. Finally, after all this time, the Courage have fallen. But how did it happen? As usual, a match between the Courage and Thorns got physical. Kathrine Reynolds collided with Lynn Williams and ended up with a few stitches. Goalkeeper and lesbian Britt Eckerstrom had the starting spot since Bella Bixy suffered an ACL injury. Now, Bixy, who has been phenomenal, was starting because Adrianna Franch was injured.

The Thorns were down to their last goalkeeper. Because of that, goalkeeping coach and German World Cup champ Nadine Angerer was on the bench and suited up, just in case. And yes, she too is a lesbian. This game actually set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Goalkeeping dominance. Eckerstrom put on a clinic. People said she was a brick wall. That’s an understatement. She was an impenetrable fortress. NC threw everything at her. And she stopped it. Her performance was so good, CBS put together a highlight reel of her saves.

But let’s not forget about her back line. Center back Kelli Hubly. She was two for two on tackles, had two blocks, four recoveries, and 14 clearances. But even if you stop all the shots, you can’t win if you don’t score. Well, Morgan Weaver took care of that.

And thanks to that goal and Eckerstrom’s masterclass in goalkeeping, the Thorns won 1-0, knocking the Courage out of the tourney.

Houston Dash v Utah Royals

The Dash and the Royals have always been a pretty even match-up. And tonight was no different. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Ball had to call it a night early due a possible leg injury. She exited the match as a precaution. Both sides had several chances, but nothing resulted in a goal. And why? Because the goalkeepers are making themselves known. Jane Campbell  made some incredible saves.

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1284320493500338176?s=20

But Abby Smith wasn’t to be outdone.

The lack of scoring and the pressure of the knockout rounds caused tensions to flare. This match also got physical. But most games do. And it’s the ref’s job to make sure it doesn’t go so far that a player is injured. Unfortunately for the NWSL, poor officiating has been a plague the league has yet to shake. During this match, Megan Oyster was hospitalized due to possible fractured ribs. This could have been avoided if the officials did their job and controlled the game. And at the end of 90-plus stoppage time, it was still 0-0. This game went to penalties. Jane Campbell came up big when it mattered most. And while Abby Smith also made a big save, it just wasn’t enough. Thanks to that, the Dash won 3-2 on penalties.

Washington Spirit v Sky Blue FC

The Spirit and Sky Blue have been breakout stars during this tournament. Needless to say, fans looked forward to this one. But remember, Andi Sullivan is out with a knee injury. In fact, knee injuries were abundant during this tournament. Women are more susceptible to knee injuries, but the artificial turf, short training time, and limited rest days are certainly possible causes. Even I injured my knee, and I was just watching. But that wasn’t going to stop these teams from going all out. This match, just the previous ones, was all about the goalkeeping. Audrey Bledsoe made some key saves early on.

But, Kailen Sheridan was not to be outdone. You know it’s serious when a lesbian puts on gloves. And Sheridan made some seriously phenomenal saves.

https://twitter.com/EqualizerSoccer/status/1284540420593258496?s=20

But at the end of the day, the two teams were still at a draw. You know what that means… More penalties! After the first two kicks, both teams were still even. But on Sky Blue’s third try, Bledsoe wasn’t having that. Luckily for Sky Blue, the Spirit missed their next shot. Tied again! But Sky Blue’s fourth shot went in… And so did the Spirit’s. And while we thought it would just continue to go this way, Sheridan made THE save of the match.

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1284560389125046272?s=20

Sky Blue advanced, beating the Spirit 4-3 on penalties.

OL Reign v Chicago Red Stars

Both teams had a rocky start to this tourney. But it’s not about how you start, right? It’s about how you finish. And both teams were well aware of that. Can you guess what the main feature of this match was? You guessed it! Goalkeeping! Alyssa Naeher reminded everyone why she’s the USWNT’s #1 goalkeeper.

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1284680045546688512?s=20

Shot after shot came from both teams, but nothing materialized. Even after all this work, Kealia Ohai Watt couldn’t score.

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1284693825626288128?s=20

Both sides were getting frustrated and fatigue was setting in. It made for a sloppy game. And after a full 90 and stoppage… You already know what I’m going to say at this point. Penalties. JJ nailed one for Chicago.

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1284701762780311552?s=20

But the Reign missed their first. And that missed shot would haunt the Reign. Chicago advances thanks to a 4-3 win during penalties. But there was one bit of good news for the Reign. Bethany Balcer, the player who suffered a panic attack during the prelims, was one of the players to take a penalty shot. There is immense pressure on players who take these shots. They must be focused. They must be confident. And they must commit 100 percent to every action. There is no room for the doubt that anxiety plants. And Balcer let out an absolute rocket to score one for her team. Her resilience is admirable and her team should be proud of her. I know I am.

On to the Semis

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1284726190046142465?s=20

Well, ladies we have our semifinal bracket. And the best thing about is, the Courage isn’t part of it! My dislike of the team aside, this does make for a more competitive semifinal round. The teams are so evenly matched that each game could go either way. No one will say, “well, I can skip this one since the Courage are probably going to win anyway.” No one knows who’s going to win! Curses aside, this type type of competition and unpredictability are what make the NWSL so fun to watch.

Let us know who you think will make it to the finals and take home the ship. Will the Thorns draw on their history of winning championships to take it all? Will one of the other teams win their first NWSL title? Is there really a curse? Find out when the semifinals start on July 22nd.