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PREVIEW: Carolina still undefeated as the NWSL Challenge Cup enters knockout stage

The North Carolina Courage are the favourites to win the NWSL Challenge Cup after scoring seven goals to remain undefeated in the preliminary round. (Photo credit: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), boasting the world’s highest level of talent in women’s soccer, is North America’s first professional league to return to play since March. After 16 games of preliminary action that began on June 27, the NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals are here. The bracket was finalized Monday night following the North Carolina Courage’s 2-0 victory over Sky Blue FC.

The matchups for the first round of the knockout stage are as follows:

July 17:

12:30 p.m. ET — North Carolina Courage (No. 1) vs. Portland Thorns FC (No. 8)

10 p.m. ET — Houston Dash (No. 4) vs Utah Royals FC (No. 5)

July 18:

12:30 p.m. ET — Washington Spirit (No. 2) vs. Sky Blue FC (No. 7)

10 p.m. ET — OL Reign (No. 3) vs. Chicago Red Stars (No. 6)

All games will be aired on CBS All Access, an online streaming service that offers free month trials.

Here is a closer look at each matchup:

NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE (No. 1) VS PORTLAND THORNS FC (No. 8)

Friday, Jul. 17 @ 12:30 p.m. ET

No one wanted to face North Carolina in the first round of the knockout stage. The Thorns came into this tournament confident that matchup wouldn’t be their fate, but despite ending the preliminary round with three draws and only two goals against, Portland finished last in the preliminary round. Lindsey Horan and Emily Menges were seated in Portland’s match against the OL Reign as a precaution, so to have them back on the field for the quarterfinal will be a game changer. Horan’s flying header against the Washington Spirit resulted in the Thorns’ lone goal this tournament. Portland won’t go down to North Carolina without a fight. If they had Becky Sauerbrunn and Tobin Heath back to full health, there would be no doubt the Thorns’ potential could match North Carolina’s.

It’s no surprise to anyone that North Carolina Courage finished with the No. 1 seed. They’ve got a solid defence and plenty of goal scorers, including Lynn Williams, who currently holds the most goals (three) in the tournament. Sam Mewis controls the park in the midfield and also has a threatening shot that she is capable of using from just about anywhere on the field.

North Carolina has won every game even though Head Coach Paul Riley hasn’t even used his top starting XI yet. It was only in the second half of Monday night’s game that Riley finally played U.S. national team forward Jessica MacDonald. The Courage not only has a stacked roster, but that stacked roster is also healthy, and in a tournament full of injured star players, health is the greatest weapon.

HOUSTON DASH (No. 4) VS UTAH ROYALS FC (No. 5)

Friday, Jul. 17 @ 10 p.m. ET

This matchup resulted in the most exciting game of the preliminary round. After the Houston Dash blew a 3-1 lead, the game resulted in a 3-3 draw, recording the most goals seen in a single game so far this tournament. Both teams have the same record heading into the quarterfinals. The Dash defeated OL Reign 2-0, and lost 2-0 to Sky Blue FC and 1-0 to Washington Spirit. Meanwhile, the Royals claimed a 1-0 win over Sky Blue FC, and 1-0 losses to both the OL Reign and the Chicago Red Stars.

The Dash’s offensive is something to be afraid of, with Rachel Daly knowing how to score goals and Kristie Mewis controlling the middle of the park, but Houston will need a more consistent defence if they want to move forward in this tournament.

U.S. national player Kelley O’Hara didn’t make an appearance on the field until the Royals’ fourth game of the tournament against the Chicago Red Stars. Both Utah’s losses were without Amy Rodriguez and Vero Boquete playing the first halves. The Utah Royals might have a slight edge over Houston Dash due to these factors.

WASHINGTON SPIRIT (No. 2) VS SKY BLUE FC (No. 7)

Saturday, Jul. 18 @ 12:30 p.m. ET

Washington Spirit is the underdog in this tournament. In recent years, they’ve consistently finished their season in the lower rankings, but in the Challenge Cup, however, the Spirit will very likely plough their way to the championship match. The team has two wins and one tie under their belt, as well as a loss to the undefeated North Carolina Couarge. The Spirit is fortunate to have Rose Lavelle, who has proven herself to be league MVP material, though she missed Sunday’s win over Houston due to an ankle injury. The team might struggle without Andi Sullivan, who will not see the field for the rest of the tournament due to injury.

Sky Blue FC, typically a last-place team, has been impressive this tournament, even without star players Mallory Pugh and Carli Lloyd. McCall Zerboni has stepped up as a leader and brought the champion mindset she developed after winning the league championship with North Carolina Courage in 2018 and 2019. Though losing twice, Sky Blue managed a win and a tie in the preliminary round. They will provide tough competition for the Spirit, though it is unlikely they will advance to the semi-finals.

OL REIGN (No. 3) VS CHICAGO RED STARS (No. 6)

Saturday, Jul. 18 @ 10 p.m. ET

OL Reign and Chicago Red Stars were predicted to be two of the stronger teams coming into this tournament, but both sides took a bumpy ride through the preliminary round. The Red Stars have a win, draw and two losses while the Reign have a win, loss and two draws.

The Reign haven’t exactly had very exciting performances leading up to the knockout stage. They’ve scored just one goal all tournament and have somehow found themselves with the No. 3 seed. The team has been without phenomenon Megan Rapinoe, but Wales national team player Jess Fishlock has returned from a long-term injury.

The Chicago Red Stars, 2019 finalists, are struggling to reach last season’s potential without their star forward, Sam Kerr, who scored about half their goals in 2019. The Red Stars have two goals so far in this tournament. Defender Julie Ertz has been an asset, as well as defender Casey Short with a header goal and a lot of effective ball movement. There is no predictable winner in this quarterfinal matchup, and viewers can expect a low-scoring game.

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