Written by: Tim Antoniewicz
Players had to play in at least 3 of their 4 group stage matches in order to be eligible for the NWSL Challenge Cup Best XI. While many internationals became ineligible, a player should play in more than half of the games to be considered for a league-best accolade. Players were only considered for positions where they play. For example, the defensive line cannot consist of 4 center backs and must consist of a right and left back. Because this format uses a 4-3-3 formation, teams using only two forwards will see that player listed as the left or right forward.
Goalkeeper: Ashlyn Harris, Orlando Pride. Harris was the standout and singular MVP of the entire tournament. No other player carried the team on her shoulders as much as Harris. The quality of her saves in key moments including penalty kick saves in back to back matches was inspiring. Her charisma and leadership unites this Orlando side. She has made a strong case for Olympic roster contention including a starting role. Second Choice: AD Franch, Portland Thorns FC.
Left Back: Casey Krueger, Chicago Red Stars. Krueger was a defensive powerhouse while contributing an assist offensively. She continues to force the question about her absence on the national team. While not her best performances, she was still the best left back across all four matches. Second choice: Carson Pickett, North Carolina Courage.
Center Back: Kelli Hubly, Portland Thorns FC. A surprise tournament standout in the absence of Emily Menges, Hubly kept the Thorn’s tournament hopes alive with several key defensive plays when the internationals were away. She then continued her dominance in the second half of the group stage playing seamlessly next to Sauerbrunn. Second choice: Sarah Gorden, Chicago Red Stars.
Center Back: Katie Naughton, Houston Dash. Naughton led a Houston back line that went undefeated in the group stage. Her defensive positioning was calculated, and her challenges were well timed. Her top speed on recovery runs looked faster than previous seasons. Naughton made smart decisions with the ball at her feet and took a step forward as a leader in the absence of the team captains. Second choice: Phoebe McClernon, Orlando Pride.
Right Back: Christen Westphal, Portland Thorns FC. Westphal was solid in one-on-one defending as well as linking play offensively. Her cross on Tyler Lussi’s goal was weighted and placed superbly. She was rarely out of position and was never forced to make plays out of desperation. Westphal is the perfect compliment to the offensive riches of Portland. Second choice: Haley Hanson, Houston Dash.
Defensive Midfielder: Quinn, OL Reign. Since terrorizing the USWNT in the SheBelieves Cup, Quinn has been as revelation in 2021. Their stellar performance carried over into the Challenge Cup with the ability to bust apart plays and combine offensively. This OL Reign side is clearly more dangerous when they is on the field. Quinn’s defensive positioning was so good that the play seemed to be magnetically attracted to wherever they was. Second choice: Angela Salem, Portland Thorns FC.
Box-to-Box Midfielder: Morgan Gautrat, Chicago Red Stars. While Chicago’s offense stalled, Gautrat was often the lone bright spot offensively. Her ability to cover ground and manipulate play through congested spaces across all 4 games was unmatched in the Challenge Cup. She makes it difficult for opponents to advance the ball through the midfield. Gautrat is a connection between the offense and the defense that many other teams are missing. Second choice: Lo’eau Labonta, Kansas City NWSL.
Creative Midfielder: Debinha, North Carolina Courage. As the group stage league leader in goals scored, Debinha continued her dominance over the rest of the league. What she can do with a ball at her feet is unparalleled in perhaps all of women’s football. Her off the ball movement is excellent. No matter how many Courage players seem to depart, this team will always be a title contender if Debinha is on the field. Second choice: Jess Fishlock, OL Reign.
Left Forward: Jessica McDonald, North Carolina Courage. With two goals and three assists, McDonald led the league in goal contributions. Her combination of technical skill, eye for goal, and physical prowess cemented her status as the best forward of the tournament. With injuries to Tobin Heath and less convincing recent performances from Lynn Williams, McDonald’s name should come back into circulation for Olympic selection. Second choice: Tziarra King, OL Reign.
Central Forward: Ifeoma Onumonu, NJ/NY Gotham FC. Two late game-winning assists to clinch a spot in the Challenge Cup final will earn any player a spot in the Best XI. Onumonu has been electric for several seasons yet is criminally underrated. She is a game changer whether she starts or enters as a substitute. Freya Coombe needs to find ways to get Onumonu on the pitch more often. She was Gotham’s best central striker this tournament. Second choice: CeCe Kizer, Racing Louisville FC.
Right Forward: Trinity Rodman, Washington Spirit. Rodman dazzled the league with an incredible full stride over the shoulder control touch to wonder-goal combination that was one of the best goals of the tournament. She looks like she is having fun when she plays, which is less common than it should be. Rodman was consistently unafraid to try new things, which resulted in a late game-winning assist for her club. Second choice: Midge Purce, NJ/NY Gotham FC.