Written by: Tim Antoniewicz
Tziarra King scores against Chicago. While this goal brought the score to 3-1 in favor of OL Reign, this goal ended up being the game winner. What made this one of the best moments of the Challenge Cup was that after putting in the work to assist the previous goal for Leah Pruitt, King got her name on the score sheet and the whole team erupted. King came off the bench, and her entry changed the game. As only a rookie in 2020, King was at the forefront of the fight against social injustice showcasing both a fun side and a mature side that can shoulder the responsibility of representing a community. The outstanding celebration from the team shows how much this club believes in her and supports her. This goal even put a smile on the faces of Chicago fans. Even with Rapinoe in the fold and Eugenie Le Sommer rumored to be arriving from Lyon, King is a must start for the Reign.
CeCe Kizer scores against Orlando. Coming into the 2021 Challenge Cup, the entire women’s soccer community wrote off Louisville as an expansion side that was not going to accomplish much in what is going to be a building year. Louisville quickly shut down that storyline. As a brand new club, the mental pressure of scoring that first goal can be deafening, but the players rose to the occasion. In the twelfth minute of club history, Emily Fox plays an immaculate through ball to CeCe Kizer who gets in behind and slots it past Ashlyn Harris for the goal. Louisville put the NWSL on notice stating that they will not be labeled as a team rebuilding and that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Brooke Hendrix scores against Orlando. After going down 1-2 after two unanswered goals in the inaugural game of club history, Brooke Hendrix scored a 93rd minute equalizer off a set piece. This goal solidified the fighting mentality of this Louisville side, and suddenly the whole women’s soccer community became a Racing Louisville FC fan. Because the first goal was during the daylight, fans could not experience the full effect of the stadium celebration. With this stoppage time equalizer at night, Lynn Family Stadium unleashed a white, black, and purple strobe light show that paired with the close-knit fan atmosphere is unparalleled in the NWSL. In the dark black light moments, the only thing fans could see is the glowing lilies and numbers on player jerseys. Clubs always preach on wanting to improve fan experience, but Louisville did more than just talk.
Evelyne Viens scores against North Carolina. After a first half shootout and a score line of 3-3 for most of the second half, fans feared that the scoring barrage would end in a draw. In the 92nd minute, Evelyne Viens somehow turned an Ifeoma Onumonu grounded cross through traffic into a back to goal back heel flick past Casey Murphy. The buildup to this goal also featured an saucy no look back heel pass by Carli Lloyd in what ended up being the difference maker sending Gotham to the Challenge Cup final over North Carolina. Viens was mostly used as a late substitute in the Challenge Cup, but her performances command a greater role as the regular season approaches.
Ashlyn Harris records nine saves against Washington. In what was indisputably the premier goalkeeping performance of the Challenge Cup, Ashlyn Harris was magnificent in goal for Orlando against Washington. Her performance kept the clean sheet to earn the club’s first win in 609 days, and fans could feel the palpable energy as the final whistle blew. Harris is the heartbeat of this Orlando team on the rise, and it was not just the quantity but also the quality of the saves that earn Harris one of the best moments of the Challenge Cup. In this game, Harris recorded her second straight game with a penalty kick save with excellent technique. In the NWSL, Jane Campbell is known as the penalty kick specialist, but she comes far off her line to make saves. In a major tournament with VAR, this would never be allowed. Watching this save, Harris dives parallel to the line with impeccable agility to cleanly make the save on a decent strike. In the previous postgame, Harris stated that she can sometimes smell the fear of penalty takers and has done her homework on every team’s top candidates. The NWSL has a new penalty kick extraordinaire.
The Moment. On April 9th 2021, the Portland Thorns defeated Kansas City. “NWSL After Dark” struck again with the most dramatic second half stoppage time in NWSL history. After 3 yellow cards had previously been issued, Simone Charley earned her second yellow card in the 90th minute followed by a straight red card to head coach Mark Parsons for commentary to the referee. Kate Del Fava then earns a yellow card. All the signs are there for a game spiraling out of control. With Portland ahead, Tyler Lussi attempts to kill the clock by shielding the ball in Kansas City’s corner. While Kristen Edmonds and Raisa Strom-Okimoto are trying to win back possession, Portland’s Morgan Weaver enters the play and attempts to push the Kansas City players off the ball. As Strom-Okimoto wins possession and clears the ball, Weaver and Edmonds get tangled together. Due to poor camera angle, it is unclear if Edmonds pulls down Weaver or if Weaver pushes down Edmonds. With the ball already gone, they both get up to rejoin the play. Weaver attempts to push Edmonds to the side as they are running. Edmonds reacts with pushing both of her hands into the face of Weaver, which progresses to a two-way verbal altercation that ends on its own. After both are returning to play, Portland defender Madison Pogarch runs in and physically confronts Edmonds with a two-handed push to the chest. At this point, the referee stops play and awards a straight red card to both Edmonds and Weaver. Additional controversy for multiple reasons ensued postgame when Thorns owner Merritt Paulson used his status with the league to successfully appeal for reversal of Weaver’s red card. In his appeal, Paulson adopted verbiage that was questionable considering the fight against social injustice. With a total of 8 cards awarded in this match, the online women’s soccer community exploded with fans, media, and team representatives all getting in on the action with their opinions of this play and the actions following the game. In an otherwise lackluster opening weekend, this moment set the tone for the rest of the tournament and sent a message that the intensity, competitiveness, and community in this league is second to none.