Thorns training, Challenge Cup, 6.1.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns' Challenge Cup opponents present interesting match-ups and format

Now we know. Five days after the National Women’s Soccer League announced its 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, presented by P&G and Secret, Portland fans learned who Thorns FC will be playing in the tournament’s preliminary round. And perhaps predictably, the North Carolina Courage are up first.

That game will take place on June 27 – the competition’s opening day – with a chance the match will be selected for broadcast on big CBS. Four days later, the Thorns will take on the Orlando Pride, with games against the Washington Spirit on July 8 and OL Reign on July 12 concluding their Challenge Cup’s initial round.

Date/Time Home Away Venue/Result
Saturday, June 27

North Carolina Courage
Thorns FC
Zions Bank Stadium
Wednesday, July 1
Thorns FC
Orlando Pride
Zions Bank Stadium
Wednesday, July 8
Washington Spirit
Thorns FC
Zions Bank Stadium
Sunday, July 12
Thorns FC
OL Reign
Zions Bank Stadium

What exactly this means for the Thorns’ tournament chances, it’s hard to tell. Across the country, NWSL teams have just begun group training. How they manage the next three weeks, and how they managed the two prior months, will determine how prepared they are come June 27. We see names like Courage and Thorns and assume those teams will be good, but right now, assumptions should be balanced by doubts. We should consider that, given how crazy 2020’s been, 2019’s information may be irrelevant.

One thing we should not doubt is the rivalry between the Thorns and Courage, one that’s become each club’s most-prominent. The squads could meet on zero days notice in a corn field equidistant from Portland and Cary and memories from the players’ first epic match – the 2016 NWSL semifinal – would still matter. The title games of 2017 and 2018 would still matter, as would the titanic regular-season matchups of those campaigns. There is no universe, parallel or present, where Paul Riley and Jessica McDonald aren’t hyped for a game against the Thorns, just as there’s no world where a player in black and red doesn’t long to push back against the Courage’s dominance.

Still, that match is only one of four. On July 1, another team with which the Thorns have significant history, the Orlando Pride, presents a game that is equally important, albeit with less heat. Same goes for the match against Spirit as well as the derby versus OL Reign. None of those games will be as anticipated as the one against North Carolina. None of those matches are without their own historical component.

Based on last year’s standings, this is a relatively fair draw. Relatively. The Thorns got the league’s best team, its worst, and two teams which occupy a middle tier. It’s certainly not an easy draw, having been slotted against three bonafide playoff contenders, but it also could have been worse. Asking for better than an even assortment from across last year’s standings feels like asking too much.

Again, though, that falls into a trap. This tournament is being waged under unique circumstances, and when it comes to the final rosters clubs submit on June 21, each of their players will have made a unique decision. We can’t lean too much on history. Things are so different, now. If a team out-works, out-prepares, and out-sacrifices over the next three weeks, they could arrive in Sandy and Herriman as unknown favorites to win this Cup.

Where that leaves us is in a place to imagine. What if that tournament opener between the Thorns and Courage immediately drops us into the NWSL’s wheelhouse, seeing two sides loaded with international-caliber talent deliver a product that can’t be replicated elsewhere in the women’s soccer world? It’s not a terrible show to debut on CBS. Conversely, months of players training on their own could make that level impossible.

Then, what do thoughts of Emily Sonnett in an Orlando purple, playing her first game against her original NWSL team, do for game two? Marta and Ali Krieger could also be on the field in that one. What does the idea of a Spirit team with the league’s best young talent do for game three? And what does the potential for a returning Jessica Fishlock add to a derby for game four, one that could see players like Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long in Reign blue?

With eight of the league’s nine teams advancing, none of the first-round games should be seen as must-wins. At least, unless things go terribly wrong, games one through three won’t be. Instead, the games are a chance to build. Come the tournament’s second half, a 1-2-1 record won’t matter. The only important thing will be how a team prepared for the knockouts.

For us, though, the opening games are a chance for something more important. They’re a chance to see soccer again. They’re a chance to see a collection of talent that’s become truly unique, not only in terms of the global game but, truly, in the history of women’s sports. They’re a chance to appreciate a set of iconic players who, as they showed in the summer of 2019, deserve to be appreciated as icons. And, in terms of our sporting lives, it’s a chance to step back toward something normal.

No, a month-long tournament with no fans won’t feel perfectly normal, but it should feel good. It should feel like we’re moving in the direction we want. And for the Thorns, that direction now means meetings against their fiercest rival, an important teammate departed, a team that could define the league’s future, and a northwest foe who’ll help carry some Cascadian venom to Utah.