The quarter final stages of the Challenge Cup did little to curb the bewilderment and upset already seen throughout the tournament. Front-runners eliminated, some rather controversial officiating and spot kicks galore.
Three out of four of the quarter final games ended in penalty shootouts, with rookie Morgan Weaver hitting the back of the net with the only goal of the stage for the Portland Thorns. Historically, the NWSL has only ever held one penalty shootout, yet we may even see a couple more in the coming days if teams continue to fail to convert their chances.
A lack of conviction in the final third has been noted amongst all teams as the tournament has progressed. Yet, there are surely plenty of reasonable explanations for this. The troublesome sun glare; the scorching skin-splitting turf; the airless heat and humidity. But possibly the biggest factor that has weighed upon the quality of play is the restricted preparation time, together with the intensely compacted playing schedule. Not forgetting also, the exceptional emotional difficulties and anxieties only a worldwide pandemic could throw in.
What we have seen, however, is some truly outstanding work between the sticks. In fact, so much so, that incredibly, all four of the winning teams’ goalkeepers were selected as the Budweiser player of the match in the first of the knockout rounds. Penalties aside, seven out of the eight goalkeepers managed to keep clean sheets in normal time, which, under this global magnifying glass, is no mean feat.
And so, it’s high time these crafted keepers had their moment in the spotlight. Here is our quick rundown on the four shot-stoppers hoping to shut out the opposition in the semi-finals.
Britt Eckerstrom – Portland Thorns
The Thorns haven’t had the best luck with their keepers thus far. Usual number one, Adrianna Franch, was ruled out with a knee injury, and replacement, debutant Bella Bixby, then suffered an ACL injury as the preliminaries ended. Seeded eighth with two out of three goalkeepers unavailable, the Thorns were down, and most were betting out.
Enter Britt Eckerstrom.
With possibly the best goalkeeping performance of the tournament so far, Eckerstrom soared, dipped and dived to answer everything that came her way. Weaver may have scored the deciding goal, but it was Eckerstrom who won the match. If Eckerstrom is able to once again switch it on, the Dash will have to come up with something pretty special to sink one past her.
Jane Campbell – Houston Dash
Houston Dash co-captain Jane Campbell has produced saves that have kept the Dash out of trouble on more than one occasion. Leading from the back, Campbell has improved communication and tightened up her defensive line, most notably in set pieces, as the tournament has progressed.
Campbell is a literal definition of a “shot” stopper and if we are taken to a penalty shootout once again, the Thorn’s may find themselves in hot water. Penalties are Campbell’s forte. She is gifted one-on-one and has blocked over half of the spot kicks taken against her. That mighty punch away against the Utah Royals should serve as a very real warning.
Kailen Sheridan – Sky Blue FC
It could be argued that it has taken Sky Blue a little while to get going, with their first goals not coming until their third fixture. However, whilst her outfield counterparts eased into the swing of things, Kailen Sheridan turned up.
Sheridan has pulled off some of the most spectacular stops of the tournament, notably her footed saves of ground sweeping strikes. But this is exactly what sets her apart from the rest; her skill in utilising her mobility. She uses the whole of her body to get the job done, as opposed to habitually relying on the gloves. Sheridan is just as good with her feet as she is with her hands and that presents the Red Stars with quite the problem indeed.
Alyssa Naeher – Chicago Red Stars
Alyssa Naeher is a name to worry about even before the game has begun. The USWNT number one is used to heightened pressures, her experience at the World Cup perhaps an advantage over her fellow NWSL goalkeepers.
With noticeably quick reaction times, some fierce punches away and impressive fingertip saves, Naeher has certainly put this experience to good use. Naeher has kept two clean sheets so far, but has all the tools to keep them all the way. Sitting just ahead of Naeher is powerhouse Julie Ertz, and this formidable pair are sure to make life very difficult for Sky Blue.
All Bets Are Off…
The quarter-finals were about as unpredictable as they could’ve been. But the one thing that remained constant was the quality of goalkeeping, and we are hoping to see more of the same. As we move into the semi-final stages, the pending title really is anyone’s to take.
It seems the only thing to expect now, is the unexpected.
By Charlotte Stacey