Even though its under dramatically different circumstances, the Chicago Red Stars are getting another chance at a National Women’s Soccer League title.
Last season, the Red Stars got into the NWSL championship game but were routed 4-0 by the North Carolina Courage.
On Sunday, they’ll play for the Challenge Cup championship against the Houston Dash. The monthlong tournament was the league’s re-boot after the regular season was shut down by the coronavirus outbreak.
“I don’t think a lot of us thought that we’d be back in a final after last year this quickly,” Chicago forward Savannah McCaskill said. “So it’s kind of nice to get a second chance at it.”
The NWSL was the first professional team sport to return in the United States. Eight of the league’s nine teams have been sequestered in Utah for the duration of the tournament, which started on June 27.
The league’s ninth team, the Orlando Pride, withdrew shortly before the start because of positive COVID-19 tests. But there were no positive tests in the so-called bubble in Utah for the duration of the event.
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird, who had been officially on the job for only about 48 hours when she had to call off the season, touted the league’s comprehensive medical protocol for the tournament’s success.
“Life in the bubble and competing in the bubble is intense, as many of you know, and I’m really proud of our players and the team staffs for the quality and the excitement of the play,” she said in a state-of-the-league news conference before the final.
The Red Stars were the tournament’s sixth seed going into the knockout round. They advanced to the semifinals on penalties after a scoreless draw with OL Reign, then held off Sky Blue 3-2 on Wednesday.
Chicago had just two total goals in the tournament before the outburst against Sky Blue.
“We’re building at the right time and I think our movements in the attacking third are starting to click, and we’re starting to really learn each other,” McCaskill said. “It’s hard to develop those relationships in a very short time. You usually have an eight-month season to build to this moment, to build to a final, but I think everyone’s done a really good job and obviously scoring three goals last game is going to give us momentum going into tomorrow.”
The Dash are the upstart underdogs of the Challenge Cup, having never made the playoffs in seven years in the league.
Houston finished seventh in the NWSL last season, but has shown vast improvement over the course of the tournament under coach James Clarkson.
“James came into the preseason with a pretty strict blueprint about how we wanted to defend, and how our attack will start from that,” Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell said. “In the tournament, the games we’ve played really well I think we’ve followed that blueprint pretty close to 100% as possible, and the games we haven’t done so well, we’ve kind of shied away from that.”
Rachel Daly has three goals in the tournament, while teammate Shea Groom has two. Daly was named the Challenge Cup’s most valuable player on Saturday.
Campbell has 17 saves, ranking just below Chicago’s Alyssa Naeher, the U.S. national team goalkeeper, with 18.
“Yeah, we’re writing this underdog story, but all along we’ve been telling ourselves that we can do this, “ Campbell said. ”We just have to believe in ourselves and go play out the blueprint.”
Sunday’s game at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the NWSL’s Utah Royals and Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, will be broadcast nationally on CBS, the league’s new television partner this season.
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