The National Women's Soccer League 2021 Challenge Cup closed out week three with a West division leader as Portland Thorns FC won their third consecutive match of the tournament. The East division is beginning to take shape as well as the competition heads into week four. Here's what you may have missed from the four-game slate over the week.
1. Portland Thorns FC will compete for championship.
Portland hosted OL Reign at Providence Park where the Thorns defeated their Cascadian rivals 2-0 to lock up the West division with nine points. Houston and Chicago sit in second and third place respectively with two points each and are mathematically out of contention. Portland awaits the results of the East division where Gotham FC leads the group with six points
It was another memorable match between the two Pacific Northwest clubs, playing the rivalry match in front of fans at Providence Park for the first time since 2019. Lindsay Horan and Simone Charley scored goals for the Thorns. with Charly dedicating her goal to her late grandmother.
Charley dedicated the goal to her late grandmother in post game comments, saying: "It meant a lot to me. It's always exciting to play at Providence Park in front of the best fans in the world. We had the band back together as well which is really exciting. Then for me personally, today would have been my grandma's 94th birthday, she passed away during preseason, so being able to get a goal for her today meant the world to me. It was definitely for her... Like I said, I was a really excited about it just because it was my first goal of the season, and I had my grandma on my mind today, so I did it for her, for Lily Mae Charley."
2. Courage struggling defensively.
Week three kicked off with a with a goal scoring contest between Gotham FC and North Carolina Courage with Gotham edging out the Courage in a wild 4-3 win. The victory puts Gotham on top of the East division standings with six points entering week four. The NY/NJ metropolis side has two games remaining.
For North Carolina, it highlighted some on-going defensive struggles for the team, as they've conceded six goals over their previous two matches. The team said farewell to USWNT center back Abby Dahlkemper after she signed with Manchester City, and are currently navigating the Challenge Cup without veteran defender Abby Erceg. The New Zealand international has been a standout for the team on the backline and has worn the captain's arm band for the club but is currently rehabbing from a lower back injury.
Midfielder Meredith Speck commented on the significance of Erceg after the match saying,
"Without Abby on the back line we lose a lot of leadership, but we need to sort out a way to get comfortable without her and move forward."
North Carolina had conceded three goals ahead of halftime, and Courage head coach Paul Riley made a double substitution of his starting center backs to begin the second half. By the game's end, the entire backline had been rotated out. Riley acknowledged he defensive woes in postgame comments.
"[Jessica McDonald] is certainly the bright spot for us right now," said Riley.
"I'm happy that she is scoring goals and getting assists. We now just need to figure out the other end of the field and stop conceding goals the way we are."
3. Orlando Pride get first win in 609 days.
All NWSL teams welcomed their national team players back, with Alex Morgan making her 2021 debut for Orlando Pride a memorable one as she assisted on Sydney Leroux's goal in the 11th minute.
The second half turned into a goal keepers battle between Spirit's Aubrey Bledsoe and Orlando's Ashlyn Harris. Harris faced 20 shots from Washington, and came up big in stoppage time to seal the victory for Orlando, the clubs first win in 609 days.
4. Chicago scores first goal of Challenge Cup.
Kansas City NWSL and Chicago Red Stars played to a 1-1 draw, essentially eliminating each other from a spot Challenge Cup Final before Portland and OL Reign kicked off.
Both teams were on the hunt for their first win of the tournament, while the Red Stars were still looking for their first goal of the competition. Chicago's silver lining is that the goal eventually came, in the 82nd minute, from Red Stars forward Katie Johnson.
Chicago have one Challenge Cup match remaining, on the road against OL Reign on April 26. The team is already looking ahead to the regular season as head coach Rory Dames praised his forward in post game comments.
"Katie has been really good this year so it was good to see her get rewarded," he said. "There's six players fighting for front spots regardless if we play with two or three, and I think Katie's done very well for herself so far. She has put herself in contention to be in the first 11 when we get into May for the regular season."