By: Tim Antoniewicz
Going in to the Challenge Cup, teams had already been in preseason for two months, the longest preseason in league history. In past seasons, teams entered the first game of the season with nearly healthy rosters since there had not been as much time for an injury to occur. After a longer preseason and many matches against college sides, many NWSL clubs entered the Challenge Cup with an astonishing amount of injuries. Alone this would not have been an issue, but when coupled with missing international players, rosters looked thin for the first two weeks of Challenge Cup play.
Prior to the beginning of the tournament, the main contenders in the East were thought to be North Carolina and Washington by a mile. Neither side progressed to the Cup Final, as newly rebranded NJ/NY Gotham FC took the East with an exciting style of play and a never give up mentality reminiscent of the Houston Dash last year. In the West, Portland was always expected to come out on top after amassing an impressive roster. Due to missing internationals for the first two games, Houston and Chicago were expected to put up a decent challenge against Portland. Instead, Portland from a point perspective ran away with the West with OL Reign sneaking into second with two wins to close out the Cup.
Between the 2019 NWSL Championship and the 2021 Challenge Cup, the Courage lost Dahlkemper, Dunn, Mewis, Daniels, O’Reilly, Zerboni, and Labbe. Even after losing 7 main contributors from a Championship-winning roster as well as others such as Spetsmark and Meehan, North Carolina were still expected to be a serious contender. Two more starters from that roster, Williams and O’Sullivan, were always going to miss game 1 due to international duty. The dam finally broke when captain Abby Erceg missed the entire 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup with a back injury. The Courage went on to concede a tied for league worst 8 goals to miss out on the Challenge Cup Final by one point. Even the league high 9 goals provided from the world-renowned high-octane offense led by Debinha and Jessica McDonald could not offset North Carolina’s defensive woes. Head Coach Paul Riley attempted multiple center back pairings including Kaleigh Kurtz, Schuyler DeBree, Cari Roccaro, and Diane Caldwell, but North Carolina had easily the shakiest center back pairing in the league. In limited minutes, the best of the bunch was probably Caldwell. Because she joined the team late and then left again for international duty with Ireland, Caldwell was likely not up to Riley’s high fitness standards. No other team missed a single player as much as the Courage missed Abby Erceg. If Erceg is healthy and on the field, North Carolina does not concede 4 goals against Gotham, and per points North Carolina is in the Challenge Cup Final.
The other main contender in the East was expected to be the Washington Spirit. After trading away the playing rights to Lavelle as she headed to Europe, offensive midfield duties fell to the emerging duo of Ashley Sanchez and Bayley Feist. It was announced hours before kickoff that Feist who had become a creative midfield engine for the club was out indefinitely with a torn ACL. From this moment forward, Washington struggled to find offensive identity throughout the Challenge Cup. Rookie sensation Trinity Rodman was the lone offensive bright spot for Washington. Per Head Coach Richie Burke, captain Andi Sullivan was to embrace a more advanced role in the midfield but missed the first two matches as a late addition to the USWNT squad in Europe. As a result the midfield was non-existent for much of the tournament with the fate of the offense revolving around creative wing play. On the defensive side, the established center back pairing of Sam Staab and Paige Nielsen never saw the field together. Nielsen played the first two matches alone in a three-back system and was consistently left isolated against attackers. She then missed the final two matches with injury. Due to injury, Staab only entered the tournament once as a second half substitute in the final match. The center back pairing of Emily Sonnett and Japanese international Saori Takarada was serviceable in the final two matches but not nearly as strong as the combination of Staab and Nielsen. Due to injuries, this became a tournament of experimentation for Washington.
From the Chicago defensive unit, six players have been called up to a national team in the past year. In the 2021 Challenge Cup, Chicago allowed only 6 shots on target, yet they finished the Cup with only 2 points and 5 goals conceded. While Naeher, Ertz, and Davidson were always expected to miss the first two matches with international duty, the defensive unit was decimated with injuries. If either of the usual center back pairing of Gorden or Davidson are unavailable, Ertz often is the primary backup at center back. After Ertz, Zoe Morse is fourth in line but missed the entire Challenge Cup with injury. Fifth in line is Kaya Sharples, who missed the Portland game due to possible COVID-19 exposure. That left the sixth option of sliding Casey Krueger into center back against Portland, while exposing a new weakness due to her vacated position at outside back. At right back, Bianca St. Georges emerged as the favorite option, but she missed the entire Challenge Cup to injury. Second in line Zoey Goralski also missed the entire Challenge Cup due to injury. That left Arin Wright playing significant minutes, but she was noticeably lacking in ball control and positioning after missing an extended period of time due to maternity leave and injury. Wright also missed the fourth game due to injury. The backline was so depleted that undrafted rookie Tatumn Milazzo was called upon to start against tournament leaders Portland. The forward line for Chicago also took a hit with star forward Mallory Pugh significantly limited in minutes. This team looks completely different when she is on the field as fans saw glimpses of the form that saw her starting matches at the 2016 Olympics. Alyssa Mautz, who is the fourth leading scorer in club history, missed the entire tournament with injury. Rachel Hill is expected to be a key offensive contributor, but she was limited in minutes per injury while missing the first game entirely. In this Challenge Cup, injuries forced Rory Dames to play whoever was available to put on a shirt that day.