The NWSL Challenge Cup offers the best women's soccer being played anywhere in the world at the moment. And the competition, played behind closed doors in the Salt Lake City area as the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to play the eighth season as scheduled, is about to get even better as it moves to the knockout rounds.
Granted, the preliminary round admittedly lacked drama. All eight teams were assured of quarterfinal progress and the games didn't even do a particularly good job of settling seeding -- the round concluding with a four-way tie for fourth place. All we really know as the quarterfinals begin Friday in the bubble at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, is that after winning all four of its games and allowing one goal, two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage remains the heavy favorite. We knew that going in.
But that same parity among the teams chasing North Carolina means there are no unappealing quarterfinals. And with four games to warm up, the quality of play should be compelling.
To set up the games ahead of this weekend, let's look at one player from each team -- some familiar and some new -- who used the preliminary round to make a favorable impression.
No. 1 North Carolina (4-0-0) vs. No. 8 Portland (0-1-3), Friday, 12:30 ET
Addisyn Merrick, North Carolina: The champions looked the part during a preliminary round. Coach Paul Riley leaned heavily on his most trusted names. With Merritt Mathias still coming back from a torn ACL and Heather O'Reilly retired, there was no familiar name available at right back. Enter Merrick, a fourth-round pick who Riley, the famously die-hard Liverpool fan, is hoping will be his version of Andy Robertson or Trent Alexander-Arnold. The former Big 12 Defender of the Year has license to push forward just like Liverpool's outside backs whose development from raw prospects into global stars was widely acclaimed as instrumental in making that team champions of England and Europe in a modern game that prizes fullbacks able to contribute offensively. While more passes and crosses still come from Jaelene Daniels on the left side, Merrick hasn't been shy in either regard through her first three starts for a team that is constantly attacking.
Bella Bixby, Portland: The keeper made her first career start in the opener against mighty North Carolina. She lost perhaps the best security blanket in the world when a hip injury sidelined Becky Sauerbrunn after that game. She hasn't had Tobin Heath to help score some goals at the other end (or injured No. 1 overall pick Sophia Smith, for that matter). But for all of that, Bixby and the Thorns allowed just three goals in the preliminary round. The goalkeeper who sat and watched the past two seasons was more about solid saves than flustered moments. She's tied for third in the tournament with 11 saves, but her presence is as impressive as the numbers. No one is dislodging Adrianna Franch when the No. 1 keeper is healthy, but whether an insurance policy in Portland or perhaps an opening with expansion Louisville, Bixby is earning her place.
No. 2 Washington Spirit (2-1-1) vs. No. 7 Sky Blue FC (1-2-1), Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET
Ashley Sanchez, Washington: The last time someone from UCLA was the fourth overall pick in the NWSL draft, it worked out pretty well for Sam Mewis and the franchise that is now the North Carolina Courage. For that matter, the fourth pick worked out for Washington a year ago when it turned into Samantha Staab. But after watching Sanchez dazzle for the Bruins, it was still surprising to see her last even that long in this year's draft. It is even more surprising after her first four pro appearances. Sure, she's not a finished product. Some of the attempted moves didn't come off. There aren't a lot of numbers to point to through an initial 277-minute sample -- she has one assist among Washington's four goals (memorable as it was) and modest 58% passing accuracy -- but the confidence to take risks and the skill and creativity that made her a star at UCLA and earned her looks from the senior national team weren't dulled a bit by the jump to the pros.
Sabrina Flores, Sky Blue: Without Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh because of injury, Sky Blue began the tournament as a case study in what was missing. But it would be difficult to single out a player who better illustrates the opportunity afforded than Flores. A short-term fill-in for Sky Blue last summer and her season with Sevilla in Spain then cut short by the coronavirus, Flores signed again with Sky Blue barely a week before the start of the tournament. She started the opener, played 273 minutes for the second stingiest defense in the preliminary round and earned player of the match honors against the Courage by putting a second-half shot just over the crossbar and helping keep all of North Carolina's attacking options in check in a game in which Sky Blue finished with 58% of possession. They were the only team to have an edge on Courage in the round. That's a dramatically different story than would have been written about the outside back without any kind of season this summer.
No. 3 OL Reign (1-1-2) vs. No. 6 Chicago Red Stars (1-2-1), Saturday, 10 p.m. ET
Alana Cook, OL Reign: Put in a bad spot when Utah's Amy Rodriguez punished a too-casual pass toward Cook around midfield, the OL Reign defender chased down one of the league's all-time best finishers, timed her tackle perfectly and defused the problem early in her team's eventual 1-0 win in the preliminary round in Herriman on July 8. And while it isn't as if too many people doubted Cook's ability to make such plays, it was still nice to see it unfold on this side of the Atlantic. A former Stanford standout who is making her NWSL debut on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, Cook only started two of Reign's first four games. She's far from alone in putting in quality minutes on a back line that has allowed just two goals, but every chance she gets in front of U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski, in attendance in Utah, should help her future.
Casey Short, Chicago: She scored the goal in the first-stage finale that kept Chicago from facing top-seeded North Carolina in a quarterfinal, which almost by definition makes it the most valuable goal of the preliminary round. But between that well-executed header late in the finale against Utah and the emotional scenes of Short in tears during the national anthem prior to the team's opener, Short was a joy to watch. She's almost always a joy to watch because of her ability to lock down her side of the field defensively while destabilizing an opposing defense with her own runs forward. It was no coincidence that when she struggled early in the opener after the emotional scenes beforehand, the Red Stars struggled right along with her. And in a tournament that was missing most of the defenders from the U.S. entry in Olympic qualifying earlier this year either through injury or virus-related withdrawal, Short keeps making a case to be a part of 2021.
No. 4 Houston Dash (1-2-1) vs. No. 5 Utah Royals (1-2-1), Friday, 10 p.m. ET
Elizabeth Ball, Utah: The defender logged the most minutes of anyone who didn't start all four games in the preliminary round, playing every minute in Utah's first three games and coming on as an injury replacement in the first half of the finale. The less heralded side of the offseason swap that sent Sauerbrunn to Portland, Ball was likely going to play a lot no matter what form this season took. So maybe she isn't the quintessential Challenge Cup revelation. Still, in not only replacing Sauerbrunn (as best anyone can possibly do that) but adapting to first-year coach Craig Harrington's three-back system, she has proved a rousing success.
Shea Groom, Houston: There might not have been a more entertaining player in the preliminary round, certainly through her team's first two games. The midfielder scored a long-range wallop against Utah, then added an audacious assist and soaring header in a win against OL Reign. She pressured goalkeepers and jawed with Shirley Cruz. She was fun. Acquired from OL Reign, along with Megan Oyster, Groom meshed well with Rachel Daly, Kristie Mewis and a Dash team that finally earned a top-four finish. All right, it was only over four games and only thanks to the tiebreaker that sorted out the four teams with four points. But success starts somewhere.