It’s been a long time coming, but we’ve finally made it; team sports are scheduled to resume in the United States on Saturday when the North Carolina Courage face off against Portland Thorns FC in the opening match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. The game, which will be broadcast on CBS, kicks off a month-long tournament to determine the 2020 NWSL league champion. With COVID-19 looming large over the world, the Nation Women’s Soccer League has opted for a tournament style held at two venues in Utah much like the plans created by other major team sports in the country. It is on this stage that the Courage will begin their quest for a third consecutive league title.
Portland brings a new lineup into 2020
The Courage have a storied rivalry with the Thorns that dates back to the season before their existence. The Western New York Flash played a stunning 4-3 extra time victory over the Thorns in 2016 and went on to win the 2016 NWSL Championship Game against the Washington Spirit before relocating to North Carolina for the 2017 season. In 2017 it was Portland who took down the Courage to win their second NWSL title in a brutal 1-0 slugfest. The teams would meet in the championship once again in 2018 in Portland, but the Courage were too much to handle coming off of a record-breaking regular season that was finished up with a 3-0 Championship win. The Courage and Thorns would not face off in the 2019 playoffs, but the Courage followed up their 2018 title with a 4-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars in the 2019 final.
After a relatively disappointing 2019 season, the Thorns underwent a major renovation. They cut ties with all of their Australian internationals and traded away Midge Purce to Sky Blue FC for Rocky Rodriguez. They also traded away Emily Sonnett to the Orlando Pride, who have since had to remove themselves from the Challenge Cup after 6 players and 4 staff members tested positive for coronavirus. When rosters were released, it was officially announced that USWNT star Tobin Heath would not be participating in the Challenge Cup for personal reasons. Then, on Monday, goalkeeper Adriana Franch was ruled out for the tournament with an injury. All of these absences leave the Thorns in a completely new phase of existence.
With so much overhaul, the main identity of the team will certainly fall to Lindsay Horan and Christine Sinclair. The two stalwart players are technically gifted and supremely talented, and they will have to step up in a big way since no other midfield or forward starters from 2019 will be taking the pitch with them this season. It is difficult to see any of the new players filling in the offensive gaps left by Purce or Australian Hayley Raso, but Horan has always posed problems for the Courage when she has faced off against them. Portland drew the toughest opening match of the tournament, and their new faces will be challenged from the opening whistle to break down a midfield and defensive unit from the Courage that have allowed less than 1 goal per game each of the least three seasons.
Despite losing Ellie Carpenter and Sonnett, the defensive unit arguably got better when they added Becky Sauerbrunn in a trade with Utah Royals FC. Sauerbrunn will pair up with the underrated Emily Menges in the center of the defensive line, with Meghan Klingenberg flanking them out wide. The other winger is a mystery at present, but we could see head coach Mark Parsons pull out the 3-4-3 like he did in the playoff match against Chicago last year, which would put Katheryn Reynolds into the lineup with Sauerbrunn and Menges. News that Franch would miss the tournament is a major blow for the Thorns, and it likely means that Britt Eckerstromm would see extended time between the pipes. Franch is a world-class keeper, and missing her will definitely hurt the Thorns.
Projecting the Courage lineup
North Carolina has been blessed with very little turnover since 2018. The roster coming into the 2020 Challenge Cup swaps out rookie first-round draft pick Ally Watt for last year’s first-round forward Leah Pruitt, but otherwise the lineup is virtually identical to 2019. The only change of significance comes at right back where Merritt Mathias is still recovering from her ACL tear that occurred against Houston at the end of last season. Instead, there will be an open competition between Hailey Harbison and Hailie Mace for the starting spot on the outside. The Courage also signed Canadian Lindsay Agnew who could be a dark horse candidate to win the starting spot. Since it is the only starting position seriously in questions, let’s break down the three players and what they have going for them.
Harbison was drafted in the first round of the 2019 NWSL College draft by the Courage. She played in the preseason match against the Orlando Pride, but suffered a torn ACL before the season started and never played a regular season minute during her rookie season. She has the advantage of being drafted by the Courage organization and training with the team all last season. She was challenging Mathias for the starting spot before her injury and showed real promise in her limited time on the pitch. The knock against Harbison is the injury. Coming back from an ACL injury is always difficult and can mess with a player’s mental ability on the pitch, but that will be known well in advance and she has been training with the team since the end of the 2019 season.
Maci is the player who the Courage probably want to win the job. After being drafted by Sky Blue FC with the second-overall selection in the 2019 NWSL College Draft, Mace opted to play in Sweden and Australia rather than with Sky Blue. During the offseason, the Courage traded McCall Zerboni for the rights to Mace, who has experience playing defense with the USWNT. Mace has the chance to play her way back onto the national team if she can show up well in the Challenge Cup tournament, but she hasn’t made an appearance for the USA since 2018. The talent is definitely there, but it’s difficult to know if there will be enough time to learn the system and get into the game for hea coach Paul Riley.
Agnew plays forward for Canada, but she is listed as a defender for the Courage, and she played left back for Houston the last time she started a match in the NWSL. The Courage probably added her as a depth piece, but at just 25 years old, Agnew has a shot at winning the spot outright. She travelled with Canada to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but she did not get into any matches. With the condensed schedule of this tournament I would be surprised if she doesn’t see at least a few minutes in a substitute role, but winning a contract from a non-roster invitee position is a big deal for the young international.
How to Watch
The NWSL took a huge step forward by getting this game scheduled for regular broadcast TV on CBS. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 pm ET, and it will also be broadcast on Twitch for international viewers. The next three group stage games will be broadcast on CBS All Access domestically.