Last year’s Challenge Cup was home to the most unlikely heroes. The Houston Dash rose from the proverbial ashes and stole the hearts of NWSL fans. Dare I say stole the hearts of the nation? It was hard not to love the underdog who everyone else in the league had counted out before the first whistle blew.
This year, the Dash have a target on their back. Owning the Challenge Cup trophy, they have the difficult task of repeating, far from the cry of their 2020 mentality. Whether or not the Dash still see themselves as the underdogs is irrelevant. They are undoubtedly a strong presence in the NWSL now with Jane Campbell in goal, Rachel Daly up top, Kristie Mewis in the midfield, and a range of supporting talent throughout.
If you’re looking for the next underdog story, though, it lies in the heart of NY. The newly minted NJ/NY Gotham FC are, in my opinion, this year’s Houston Dash. Counted out from the start by most, the club formerly known as Sky Blue has a tough history. While the club kicked off their inaugural NWSL season in 2013 with a 4th place finish, the following six years saw a top finish of 6th place along with multiple 8th or 9th place finishes (last or second to last). Yes, they made their way to the semi-finals of last year’s Challenge Cup, but somehow nobody (aside from Gotham fans) seems to remember that. When the average fan thinks about the team, they can most likely name one player - Carli Lloyd.
The similarities to Houston of last year are there - a roster full of talented internationals (most from other countries, thus accounting for the lack of name recognition) and discounted from the start because of their previous records. However, this year’s Gotham FC squad is not one to overlook.
Nahomi Kawasumi is a talented midfielder and veteren Japanese international with a trophy case to prove it: a 2011 World Cup win, 2012 Olympic silver, and 2015 World Cup Silver. Midge Purce, a USWNT international who has been in and out of camp since Vlatko Andonovski took over at the helm, is a lethal addition to Lloyd up top, having scored two goals in two games already. Paige Monaghan and Ifeoma Onumonu are not to be forgotten. Monaghan scored Gotham’s only goal to give them the 1-0 victory over Orlando in their first game and has an assist in her pocket while Onumonu has two assists in two games (one coming off the bench). Finally, Gotham rounds out their roster with Kailen Sheridan, the Canadian International Goalkeeper, and McCall Zerboni, a verteren leader of the NWSL on the field. While both of these players are currently out with injury, their addition back to this already strong lineup should be feared across the league.
In short, don’t discount this team. They made a statement with their 4-3 win against North Carolina, and with a 2-0 record they sit atop the East Division in this year’s Challenge Cup. This team could ride momentum, talent, and cohesion into a Challenge Cup victory… and could be here to stay.
By Sara Ach