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NWSL Challenge Cup preview: Thorns face defending champions in tournament kickoff

In less than a week a professional sport will finally return to action for the first time since the beginning of April. The NWSL’s Challenge Cup begins on Saturday, with the Portland Thorns FC taking on defending champions North Carolina Courage to kick off the tournament.

With a total of nine teams and 25 games, the Challenge Cup will run until Jul. 26. Each team plays four guaranteed games before quarterfinals begin on Jul. 17.

TOURNAMENT OUTCOME

Portland Thorns FC: 2

North Carolina Courage: 1

Yes, the teams playing in the first match of the tournament will be the same two squads in the championship game on Jul. 26. The Courage and Thorns have consistently been rivals, with the Thorns defeating the Courage in the 2017 NWSL final and the Courage taking the win in 2018. The two teams set a league attendance record of 25,218 when they played against each other last year on Aug. 11 during regular season. The Courage ended up winning the championship again last season while the Thorns didn’t make even make the finals. The Thorns struggled defensively and were outscored 9-1 in their last five games of the regular season.

So why do the Thorns have an edge this time? Well, the Thorns now have a fifth 2019 FIFA World Cup champion on their roster after acquiring superstar defender Becky Sauerbrunn. The four-time NWSL Defender of the Year will be the weapon the Thorns need on the back line, which has been their weak spot. The Thorns were already considered to have the most stacked roster in the league, as they have Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, Adrianna Franch and Meghan Klingenberg, but now with one of the best players in the world controlling the back line, it will be difficult to find a weak spot in the Thorns’ line up.

Although Portland will take the championship, it will be the Courage that wins the opening game of the tournament against the Thorns. The Courage has a roster that’s been playing together for years and therefore will be stronger than the Thorns off the start line. Similar to the Thorns, the Courage has a stacked roster that includes four 2019 FIFA World Cup champions (Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Jessica McDonald and Crystal Dunn) and other national-level players including Lindsay Agnew (Canada) and Debinha (Brazil).

PLAYOFFS

With playoffs going straight to quarterfinals, just one team will be eliminated. Sky Blue FC has consistently been the weak link of the league. There is no doubt they will likely be the unlucky team by the end of the preliminary round, especially since star player and team captain Carli Lloyd will be forced to sit out with a knee injury. Her teammate and fellow 2019 World Cup champion Mallory Pugh will also be out with a hip injury.

GOLDEN BOOT, GOLDEN GLOVE AND MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Last year’s league MVP Sam Kerr (Chicago Red Stars), who won three consecutive Golden Boots from 2017 to 2019, is no longer around to collect any awards this year, as she left the NWSL to join the English FA Women’s Super League. Lynn Williams of the North Carolina Courage will get the Golden Boot, which will come with the MVP award as well. She won both awards in 2016 and was a runner up the Golden Boot for two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019.

Along with winning the tournament with the Portland Thorns FC, Adrianna Franch will get the Golden Glove. She was also named Goalkeeper of the Year in 2017 and 2018.

(Featured photo credit: Chat Sports)

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