Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

NWSL Challenge Cup will feature multiple Georgia players 

The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup begins Saturday at Zions Bank Stadium in Salt Lake City.

The opening match between North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns begins at 12:30 p.m. on CBS and CBS All Access. At 10 p.m., Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit will be streamed on CBS All Access.

The month-long tournament will consist of eight teams and 23 games. Quarterfinals begin on July 17 and the championship match is set for July 26 on CBS and CBS All Access.

Multiple NWSL players with ties to Georgia will compete, though Marietta’s Emily Sonnet will not, following Orlando Pride’s withdrawal from the competition.

Here’s a look at storylines going into the tournament as well as where Georgia natives are competing, highlighted by two-time World Cup champion Kelley O’Hara, who plays for the tournament host, Utah Royals.

Utah Royals 

The Royals will be impacted most by the absence of U.S. women’s national team forward Christen Press, who will will not compete in the tournament. The team is completely different without Press in the attack and USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn left for the Portland Thorns. However, the rest of Utah’s backline, including O’Hara, returns along with veteran forward Amy Rodriguez. Utah’s also has a new head coach in Craig Harrington.

Georgia tie: Kelley O’Hara, a defender from Fayetteville, is a two-time world champion and was traded to the Royals in late 2017.

North Carolina Courage 

The 2019 NWSL champions likely won’t miss a beat, after returning most of the lineup that earned a second consecutive championship and adding more young talent. Each team will be challenged in some way by the tournament format, but the Courage remain the deepest team with the best chemistry and cohesiveness in the league. 

Chicago Red Stars 

Chicago fell 4-0 to North Carolina in the 2019 championship and will also return most of its starters. But gone is 2019 NWSL MVP, forward Sam Kerr, who is a one-of-a-kind goal scorer, who won the Golden Boot three years in a row. This offseason, the team added forwards Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill. What to watch: How the Red Stars approach its attacking strategy following the end of the Kerr era.

Georgia tiesMorgan Brian, a midfielder from St. Simons, is a two-time world champion and in her third season with the Red Stars. Ella Stevens, a rookie midfielder, was drafted in the third round of the 2020 NWSL draft. Stevens graduated from Grayson High (Gwinnett) before playing at Duke from 2016-19.

OL Reign

The Reign will have a much healthier than last year, when a long list of names filled the injury report each week. With new additions and players returning back to full health, the Reign look like a good squad on paper even without USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe, who will not be competing in the Cup. With a new coach, how will the talent gel and translate to the field during the month-long tournament?

Portland Thorns 

The Thorns are another team that will look much different than 2019 but also has a lot of young options. UWSNT forward Tobin Heath will not be competing in the Cup, the team’s 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sophia Smith will play limited minutes due to injury, and starting goalkeeper Adrianna Franch is out with injury. Portland may be looking to find its grove during the Cup, more than anything else.

Georgia tie: Defender Gabby Seiler, a Peachtree City native, is returning after an injury last season cut short a great debut season.

Washington Spirit 

The Spirit made huge improvements last season, going from a two-win season in 2018 to competing for a playoff spot in 2019. Now, Washington has been considered by analysts the team who can come closest to challenging North Carolina in the Cup. With its most talented and consistent players healthy and available at once, it’s clear why the Spirit are considered the team to watch. 

Georgia tie: Brooke Hendrix, a defender Sharpsburg and a 2011 graduate of Northgate High in Newnan, who (previously played at West Ham United in England’s WSL) 

Sky Blue FC 

Sky Blue finished second to last in 2019, but with so many changes internally at the club, the season felt like a moral win. Sky Blue is still in the middle of the sort of changes that’ll lead to success in the long-term. Even without USWNT forward Mallory Pugh, who was received in an early 2020 trade with the Spirit, and USWNT veteran Carli Lloyd for the Cup, Sky Blue will at least get a look at its new pieces and continue to work toward the future. 

Houston Dash 

Houston made a few changes during its offseason, which included longtime Dash forward Watt leaving for Chicago and Sofia Huerta and Amber Brooks going to the Reign through trades. With its remaining roster and new additions, what improvements will the Dash show from 2019?   

Georgia tie: Kennesaw’s Jane Campbell is the Dash’s starting goalkeeper. She went to the Darlington School before Stanford.

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