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The 2021 Challenge Cup has finally arrived and will kick off with a rematch of last year's championship final against Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars. 

One of the longest running franchises in the National Women's Soccer League, Chicago has risen to the top of the leagues contenders over the last several years, competing in semifinals and two championship finals but are still in the hunt for their first NWSL trophy. 

A busy offseason saw the team protect their roster from the expansion draft with a trade to Racing Louisville FC that sent Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato to Kentucky. A later trade with newly rebranded Gotham FC brought veteran Sarah Woldmoe and USWNT forward Mallory Pugh to the roster, and they ended their roster moves with the eventual re-signing of Nikki Stanton ahead of the Challenge Cup. With new player acquisitions and a veteran core in place, the club is on the hunt for as many trophies as possible in this upcoming season.

Coaches Perspective

The Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames has been with the club since with WPSL days and is entering his ninth NWSL season as head coach with the team. The Red Stars approach to last year's Challenge Cup initially went to plan, but ultimately shifted as the club further advanced in the tournament and was dealt significant injury blows. This year, Dames and the team are on the hunt for every possible trophy they can compete for. 

"The goal for this season is to be playing our best and at the highest level at the most important points of the year, and having all the players healthy that we would like to have be able to select," says Dames.

"So, I mean everybody wants to win the league, everybody wants to win trophies. So I don't ever try to set those as the be all, but I've made no secret of what we want to do. But I don't think it's a successful or not a successful season based off of that specifically, but I think we'll certainly be disappointed if we don't bring home any hardware this year between the events that we have."

One thing we don't know

Chicago's midfield is stacked with veteran talent and their most recent roster has eight players listed at the position. The question is how the team is going to be able to find a way to utilize the players during this season. 

"I think the biggest thing I would say about our midfield this year with bringing Sarah [Woldmoe] in and getting Nikki [Stanton] back -- if something does happen to Vanessa [DiBernardo], Morgan [Gautrat], or Danny [Colaprico] -- we don't necessarily have to change what we're doing or how we tried to do it," says Dames.

"Last year when Morgan got hurt, we went from playing too high in one load, to play in too low and sitting in more of a block. So I think the midfield depth will allow us to be more consistent with the principles that we want to play with, not necessarily the same shape every game, but the principles that we've kind of instilled starting last year and this year, we'll be able to be more consistent and fluid with that. Because it's going to be competitive to get into the midfield for sure, especially when Julie [Ertz] is back. In between Julie, Nikki, Sarah Morgan, Danny, Vanessa, regardless if we're playing with three or four, it's going to be a hard group to crack."

Three things we know

As the team continues to navigate their 2021 Challenge Cup, their perspective has shifted a bit from last year's tourney. Chicago's matches were scripted, with planned rotations and subs, in an effort to manage minutes, player health and safety, and get match minutes for players who may not have gotten time during a regular season otherwise. This year, Dames says it's about staying competitive from the first whistle to last whistle for a roster with depth. 

"The biggest difference would be last year with our roster. We had a lot of quantity, there are a lot of players, a lot of young players, a lot of players we wanted to get experience for. I think the roster that we have this year actually has a lot of experience and a lot of depth. I do think by the time the Challenge Cup is done, and we get into the regular season, everybody would be on equal footing."

Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo are long time league veterans and have been with Chicago for the last four and seven seasons, respectively. This is the first extended preseason they've had with an NWSL club ahead of competitive fixtures and the long-time midfielders both feel like the extra time together has benefitted the team.

"Personally for me this is actually my first full preseason with a team in the league so I'm happy about that," said Gautrat.

"I'm glad that I've got to be able to spend as much time with the team and it's, of course, been the longest preseason yet, so it's been a good preseason. I think that we've been able to really come in and get fit and have a lot of experience playing with each other, whereas before, it's been a quick turnaround. But I think now everyone's itching to play real games and not against each other constantly. So, I think everyone's looking forward to Friday and just getting those games on."

DiBernardo has been with the club since 2014 and has captained the team through countless matches in seasons prior. With Ertz and Naeher out on international duty, the midfielder is likely to captain the team through Challenge Cup.

"From the start, Rory started the preseason off with 'Every trophy there is to win, we're gonna go after it.' So, yeah we're gonna use these games to learn and grow as a team, its the first few games that we've had in a long time and not against each other. So, there's definitely going to be learning curves for us, but I think in the end we're looking to win the Challenge Cup and really put our best foot forward."

Looking ahead

Chicago had closed door preseason scrimmages against University of Missouri, Loyola Chicago, Notre Dame, and Cleveland Ambassadors of the Women's Premier Soccer League ahead of the Challenge Cup. They will face off against Houston Dash on the road in their Challenge Cup opener.

The Challenge Cup roster

The 26 player roster will eventually have to be narrowed down ahead of the Challenge Cup and the start of the regular NWSL season. The current preseason participants consist of players acquired through trades, offseason signings, non-roster invitees, trialists, and the NWSL draft. Midfielders lead the way with 13 players listed at the position.

CHICAGO RED STARS 2021 ROSTER

GOALKEEPERS: Emily Boyd, Cassie Miller, Alyssa Naeher

DEFENDERS: Tierna Davidson, Sarah Gorden, Casey Krueger, Tatumn Milazzo, Zoe Morse, Kayla Sharples, Bianca St. Georges, Arin Wright

MIDFIELDERS: Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Julie Ertz, Morgan Gautrat, Alyssa Mautz, Nikki Stanton, Ella Stevens, Sarah Woldmoe

FORWARDS: Makenzy Doniak, Zoey Goralski, Rachel Hill, Katie Johnson, Sarah Luebbert, Mallory Pugh, Kealia Watt