Thursday, May 19, 2022

NWSL Challenge Cup: Examining how the Courage, Current and Thorns got off to strong starts in 2022

The 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup continued Wednesday with the Kansas City Current extending their lead in the Central division after a 3-0 win against the Houston Dash. The North Carolina Courage, meanwhile, remain undefeated in the East after a 2-2 draw against the Washington Spirit, and the Portland Thorns are on top of the West after defeating Angel City FC, 3-0.

As the tournament reaches the halfway point, Challenge Cup action will continue Saturday before taking a break for the international window in April. Fans can watch 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup games live and on demand with Paramount+.

The east, west, and central division have leaders pulling away from the pack after three matches settled in the record books. Let’s take a look at the current group leaders.

Courage top the east 

Head coach Sean Nahas and his squad are showing why the Courage are still going to be a threat in the league despite roster turnover during an expansion year.

The team had a two-goal lead in the first half against the Spirit before having to settle for a 2-2 draw against 2021 NWSL Champions Washington Spirit. The Courage quickly exposed the Spirit’s high line when Debinha connected on goal in the fifth minute. 

The Spirit leveled out the match in the second half with a quicker tempo and utilized the wings to pull within one just ahead of the hour mark with a goal from Trinity Rodman, and, moments later, an equalizer from Ashley Hatch. Despite walking away from the match with the draw, the Courage currently lead the East with seven points.

It’s just the latest result for the a Courage side that entered 2022 with questions around their roster after key departures with Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams, among others. But the Courage’s attack by committee has begun to show early signs of progress just after a few weeks. The team has scored five goals by five different goal scorers in three Challenge Cup matches, and are in good position to exit the group as potential winners if they can get a result on Sunday against Gotham FC. 

Current control the Central

After announcing that star striker Lynn Williams would miss the rest of 2022 with a season-ending hamstring injury, the team has made a number of adjustments over its last two matches to achieve results. The team was also without star midfielder Sam Mewis during Wednesday’s match due to a quick turnaround and Mewis’ minute restriction.

Head coach Matt Potter unleashed a five back formation on the road against the Houston Dash, where the Current were victorious in a 3-0 win as Taylor Leach, Kristen Hamilton, and Lo’eau LaBonta scored goals. The three-goal margin was the largest victory of margin for the franchise to date. It was just one record the club set during the evening, as Leach’s goal was also the quickest in Challenge Cup history.

The match also featured the debut of rookie Elyse Bennett, who recorded two assists during the match. The Washington State alum had an active night in the attacking line, creating three chances, and now leads all Current forwards in expected goals, averaging 1.24xG after just two games with one start. 

These early examples show the Current’s ability to make adjustments in light of missing key players, and the club is now on top of the Central with seven points. 

Thorns own the West

The Thorns defeated Angel City FC, 3-0, to take the lead in the West on Wednesday night. Sophia Smith, Yazmeen Ryan, and Morgan Weaver all scored goals in the victory. Head coach Rhian Wilkinson’s three back has been difficult for opposing teams to break down and as the Thorns rolled out in a 3-5-2 formation once more. Angel City had few answers to work out a result.

Angel City’s early efforts were no match for a Thorns attack with numbers in the middle and on the wings. Angle City’s DiDi Haracic sustained the Thorns offense for half hour before Smith scored the breakthrough goal in the 30th minute.

Drafted in 2019, Smith is off to quick start, solidifying her place among the Thorns’ offense and has become the new face of Portland’s attack in 2022. In three games, Smith has two goals and hefty expected goal rate with 2.57xG. While leading the team in goals and xG, she is also the team leader in total shots (10), shots on target (five), and chances created (four). Smith and the Thorns now lead the West with seven points with three games remaining in the tournament. 

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