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Washington Spirit NWSL Challenge Cup preview: Chicago Red Stars and North Carolina Courage

The Spirit kick off the Challenge Cup with last year’s top two teams

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The NWSL Challenge Cup may be a weird, ad hoc competition that the league had to throw together on the fly because we’re in a pandemic, but the Washington Spirit aren’t letting that change their plans. They went to Utah to win their first-ever trophy, and the first step is taking care of business in the preliminary round against the Chicago Red Stars, North Carolina Courage, Portland Thorns, and Houston Dash.

Here’s part one of our preview of the Spirit’s opponents. Part 2 will come out tomorrow morning.

Chicago Red Stars

Last year:
2nd place (14W-2D-8L, 44 points, +13), lost in NWSL Championship

2019 was Chicago’s breakthrough season, but they were perhaps a bit overawed by the championship game itself. They lost Sam Kerr, who is quite literally irreplaceable, but Rory Dames has made some astute moves within the league, adding talented players who were probably just in need of a change of scenery.

Projected lineup:

This is a real stab in the dark, quite frankly. Chicago will reportedly be without two major absentees, as Equalizer Soccer says both Tierna Davidson and Danny Colaprico are probably going to miss at least some of the tournament. Davidson being out forces Sarah Gorden inside, which in turn leaves something of a mystery at right back.

Colaprico’s absence leaves Dames with little option but to send out a very attack-minded central midfield trio, with last year’s #10 Vanessa DiBernardo possibly shifting back closer to Morgan Brian. Yuki Nagasato is probably moving inside after Chicago went out of their way to add more speed on the wings. Both wings and the lone forward role seem up for grabs, but don’t be surprised if Michele Vasconcelos (whose xG numbers were very good last year in limited time) claims a spot over Savannah McCaskill or Kealia Watt.

What’s the vibe?:
I’ll admit, I’ve been having trouble getting a handle on exactly how to feel about the Red Stars. So I’m gonna sub out for a second and give the floor to someone who knows Chicago as well as anyone. Here’s Claire Watkins from Southside Trap:

The Red Stars are a bit of an enigma right now, especially in this first game. The big story is who is going to start up front in the absence of Sam Kerr, but with the reported unavailability of Tierna Davidson and Danny Colaprico, Chicago has a couple question marks on all lines. The Red Stars favored more of a free-flowing 4-3-3 in recent years, but a large part of their DNA rests in a bruising 4-4-2, which might be what the club defaults back to in a short-form tournament like the Challenge Cup. Rory Dames has said on a few occasions that he’s planning on playing the team’s kids, but that’s likely to come into play more in Chicago’s second and third game - expect the standard names on Saturday. I’d also guess Washington can expect periods where Chicago will full-team press, trying to disrupt the Spirit’s game-plan and get some chemistry going between the midfield and the offense. I’m not sure Saturday is going to be pretty, but I do think it will be a tough (and interesting) matchup for both teams.

Just because the exact way the pieces fit together isn’t entirely clear doesn’t mean that this is a bad roster. It is, in fact, a really good roster! Julie Ertz was probably the actual best player on earth in 2019, Nagasato was brilliant as a creator, Short and Brian are both players that could potentially land on a Best 11, and newcomers like Watt and Rachel Hill are probably a lot better than what we saw from them in Houston and Orlando, respectively.

Chicago is a team in flux trying to find a new way to go about the game after losing a completely unique player in Kerr. Under normal circumstances, that would be a big challenge. In today’s circumstances, with no true preseason and every game being so much more consequential than a typical regular season, that lack of time to build a new understanding is potentially overwhelming.

Prospects of a Spirit win:
Normally the Red Stars are a really tough foe for Washington, but it feels like this time the Spirit will kick off as the favorite. There are two caveats, though: Chicago has more NWSL experience in their likely starting eleven (no matter the formation), and the Red Stars know more about how the Spirit will play than vice versa.

North Carolina Courage

Last year:
1st place (15W-4D-5L, 49 points, +31), won NWSL Championship

Two straight NWSL titles, three straight Shields, three straight trips to the final (really four if you count their last year as the Western NY Flash, an occasion we try not to discuss around here). They’re the Death Star.

Projected lineup:

North Carolina’s 4222 is their hallmark, and in fact may be the most well-defined system in all of American pro soccer. They’ve also got potential Best XI players all over the place. It’s remarkable that they’ve managed to keep the gang together for this long in a league with such a tight salary cap.

What’s the vibe?
They’re the overwhelming favorites. Last year’s Courage broke the NWSL record for best goal difference in a season (+31) and for goals scored in a season (54). Since their move to Cary, NC, they have won two out of every three regular season games they’ve played (48 out of 72). On top of that, there’s a clear foundation to how they play, and they have the league’s strongest internal culture. People may grow weary of Paul Riley talking about how his dynasty of a team is somehow an underdog, but the roster is bought all the way in.

NC is going to be without some notable players: Merritt Mathias hasn’t yet recovered from a torn ACL late last season, Heather O’Reilly retired, and McCall Zerboni is now playing for Sky Blue FC. However, they’ve once again added some excellent young players in versatile USWNT prospect Hailie Mace and forward Ally Watt, and Riley has a history of getting unheralded players from within the league and rapidly getting them to the next level.

The Courage are good at everything, but let’s pick out two specific aspects of who they are. First, as a team, they have the clearest vision of what their system is, and it’s tailor-made to suit the players on the roster. Riley’s 4222 allows his group to high-press, and playing them is like walking into a buzzsaw. They’re undoubtedly skillful, but they’re also tough, strong, and well-organized.

By itself, their mastery of Riley’s tactical blueprint would make them one of the favorites. Throw in the fact that they have two world class creators in Crystal Dunn and Debinha pulling the strings, and you start to see why the Courage keep winning games.

It’s tempting to say “None!” and move on, but let’s give it a shot. First up, right back is down to an unproven trio. During the offseason, most assumptions were that Mace would end up there, but Riley sees her as an attacker, and has other ideas to fill out his back four:

Williams is the most experienced player out of that trio, but she’s entering her third NWSL season with just 5 career appearances. Harbison missed her entire rookie season after tearing her ACL and MCL, while Merrick is a 4th round pick from this year’s draft (remember the draft? That happened this year, and not in like 2015!).

There are also reports that USWNT forward Jess McDonald has a hamstring issue that might limit her minutes, at least in the near term. Of course, since they can turn to Kristen Hamilton and lose almost nothing, even missing one of the best forwards in the league is not really a big deal. They’re that good.

Prospects of a Spirit win:
As a club, the Spirit have made no secret that they want to be the team that knocks the Courage off their pedestal. Last year’s late-season win over NC — the first time the Spirit had ever played NC and avoided defeat — meant a lot to fans, but arguably it meant even more inside the organization as a proof of concept. The club learned that it can be done.

Doing it again is going to take a lot, though. The Courage have perfected their approach, which is exactly where you want to be when approaching a tournament like this with a shortened amount of prep time. The Spirit are embracing the challenge, but it is a hell of a challenge.