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Key matchups, players to watch and more ahead of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup

The Red Stars know that the cup sets the tone for the regular season, but they won’t have three starters.

Alyssa Naeher
Goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher of USA in action during the International Friendly match between Netherlands Women and USA Women at Rat Verlegh Stadion on November 27, 2020 in Breda, Netherlands. 
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The National Women’s Soccer League is two weeks from the start of its second Challenge Cup Tournament. The 21 games begin April 9 and conclude with the championship on May 8.

Here’s a guide as the Red Stars look to improve upon last season’s second-place finish:

USWNT Players absent

The Red Stars will kick off the Challenge Cup without three of their biggest stars and leaders.

Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, midfielder/defender Julie Ertz and defender Tierna Davidson are three of the 23 players selected by Vlatko Andonovski for friendlies against fifth-ranked Sweden and third-ranked France on April 10 and 13.

Naeher’s absence exposes the Red Stars’ lack of depth at goalkeeper for the moment. Emily Boyd still is recovering from a knee injury she sustained while playing overseas in Denmark and isn’t expected to return until the regular season. Cassie Miller will be the backup goalkeeper, but Boyd said she’s focused on earning that position back before the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Sarah Gorden and Casey Krueger will be anchors on the backline with the absence of Davidson and Ertz. The Red Stars also will be without defender Bianca St. Georges to start the Cup as she continues her recovery after tearing her meniscus in January. That provides opportunities for young defenders, such as Zoey Goralski and Kayla Sharples.

Andonovski said that the Olympic roster will be set by the middle of June, and evaluation will continue while players are with their NWSL teams. It’s safe to assume that the Red Stars will lose at least three players to the USWNT for the Olympics.

Key Matchups

The Cup opener against the Houston Dash, a rematch of last year’s Challenge Cup final, is the first key matchup and the only one the Red Stars are focused on now.

The Dash will be without midfielder Kristie Mewis and goalkeeper Jane Campbell, two of the 17 NWSL players on Andonovski’s 23-player roster. The Dash boast a dangerous attack, and without Ertz, Davidson and Naeher, the Red Stars will rely on their depth and the seamless transition of other players into those key defensive roles.

The Red Stars will be playing in the West Division, so they follow their opener with games against the Portland Thorns on April 15, Kansas City on April 20 and OL Reign on April 27.

The top two teams from each division advance to the final, so there is little room for error. There’s also the potential for a rematch of the 2019 NWSL Championship between the Red Stars and the North Carolina Courage on May 8 in the Challenge Cup Final.

Players to Watch

The Red Stars’ depth is the team’s greatest asset this year.

“It’s crazy because I don’t think our starting 11 will ever look the same,” defender Arin Wright said.

After sitting out nearly the entire 2020 season aside from one match in the Fall Series, Wright is excited to return. Her return is coming at the right time as her veteran experience will provide value when the team potentially loses three defenders from its lineup for the Olympics. Davidson and Ertz are two Red Stars who Andonovski has called into camp consistently, but he also mentioned Krueger is still in the mix for the 18-player roster.

The midfield is a crowded place for the Red Stars this season, so keeping an eye on the middle third would be wise. Veteran midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo said this is the most competitive preseason she has been in her seven seasons with the team, and the competition is welcomed.

“Our team is so strong,” DiBernardo said. “You might not get called one day to start, but you might be the most important player coming off the bench. We have to be open to having different roles.”