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NWSL Challenge Cup 2022: Breakout Watch

Updated: Jun 19

By: Tim Antoniewicz

In this week’s podcast episode, Sara and Allie discussed the NWSL Challenge Cup. One of the reasons they mentioned makes the competition great is that at least one new star player emerges every year. As the competition kicks off, let’s break down who that could be in 2022. Players previewed below could not be rookies, have recent senior national team call-ups, or have played more than 500 NWSL minutes in 2021.

Ally Watt, Forward, OL Reign

Our first player with breakout potential is OL Reign forward Ally Watt. The back-to-back first team All-American at Texas A&M joined the league with all the tools for immediate success. The Courage selected her in the first round in 2020. Thirteen minutes into her first appearance in the 2020 Challenge Cup, she tore her ACL. Out for the season, the club traded her to OL Reign prior to 2021.

At OL Reign, Watt spent most of 2021 rehabbing her injury. She logged 35 minutes to close out the season. She looked dangerous even though she did not score. Every time she touched the ball, she forced defenders to backpedal and concede space. Watt linked well with her teammates. With the departure of Eugénie LeSommer and Megan Rapinoe’s career in its later stage, the Reign need a forward to step up. Look for Watt to break out into the role.

Brianna Pinto, Midfielder, North Carolina Courage

Another first round talent, Brianna Pinto joined Gotham as a rookie last season. Hopes were high after a decorated youth national team and three-year collegiate career at UNC. Buried in a crowded midfield, she failed to make an impact for the club in 2021. Pinto logged only 195 minutes in ten appearances as a substitute.

This offseason, Gotham traded her to North Carolina to be closer to home. She joins new head coach Sean Nahas, one of her youth national team coaches. In contrast to Gotham, North Carolina’s midfield is wide open. The past few offseasons saw the departures of Sam Mewis, Crystal Dunn, McCall Zerboni, Cari Roccaro, Lauren Milliet, and Angharad James. Additionally Denise O’Sullivan is unavailable for the Challenge Cup per the recently released rosters. Pinto will pair well with Debinha as dual-threat attacking midfielders. The door is wide open for Pinto to walk through.

Makamae Gomera-Stevens, Midfielder, Houston Dash

After the departure of Kristie Mewis, Shea Groom needs a midfield partner to run underneath star forward Rachel Daly. Enter Makamae Gomera-Stevens who can also play on the wing. The Washington State product joined Houston last season, recording 421 minutes in thirteen appearances. Gomera-Stevens flashed potential but could not get the consistency on the field to make a lasting impact. If Gomera-Stevens develops chemistry on the field, she will take a big step forward in 2022.

Malia Berkely, Defender, North Carolina Courage

Last season, the Courage could not find a top-caliber center back to pair with captain Abby Erceg. Incumbent Kaleigh Kurtz provides quality backup play but should not be relied upon as a first option. North Carolina may have solved its problem by bringing in Malia Berkely. Berkely completed her collegiate career at FSU where she was an All-American and won a national title. She had a top five draft grade until she elected to forego the NWSL draft.

Instead, Berkely signed with Bordeaux in the French D1 Arkema last winter. After a year in France, she now returns stateside to shore up the Courage back line. If Berkely has the year she is capable of, this back line will be one of the best in 2022.

Zoe Morse, Defender, Chicago Red Stars

It is no secret that Chicago lost a lot this offseason, including center back options Sarah Gorden and Julie Ertz. Primary backup center back option last season Kayla Sharples spent the offseason on loan in Australia and is not yet back with the team. Star Tierna Davidson will miss time with the USWNT. Chicago needs a player to step up, and Zoe Morse has the potential to answer the call.

In the 2020 draft, Morse had a late first round grade but fell to Chicago in the third round. She has great distribution and vision and can also play in the defensive midfield. While only receiving seven minutes in 2021, she contributed more in 2020 and showed promise. Chicago’s back line will benefit from a strong midfield, which will help support the young center back.

Morse and the other aforementioned players represent a small fraction of those with potential to have a breakout year. For continued coverage, continue to follow the WoSo Show online or on Patreon, Twitter, and Instagram.

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