Four questions the Red Stars need answered during the Challenge Cup, ahead of regular season

Scoring, goalkeeping and the starting lineup all have question marks

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Kealia Watt

Kristie Mewis #19 of Houston Dash defends Kealia Watt #2 of Chicago Red Stars in the championship game of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 26, 2020 in Sandy, Utah.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NWSL kicked off 2021 play with the Challenge Cup’s opening match between the Red Stars and the Houston Dash.

Both sides struggled in finding their rhythm and ultimately the 2020 Challenge Cup championship rematch ended in a scoreless draw with each team earning a point in the Western Division standings.

Here are four questions that the Red Stars still need answered before the regular season begins.

Who is going to be their goal scorer?

This is a question that has been around since Sam Kerr’s departure. When you lose a world-class talent like Kerr, it makes sense, especially when the Red Stars have struggled to fill the void created by the Australian superstar. Kealia Watt came in last year and showed she could be the go-to scorer, but she still struggled at times to finish. Last year was unprecedented, and the stability provided in this year’s lengthy preseason could be just what Watt needs to settle in. The Red Stars attack has a lot of scoring options, including young forward Sarah Luebbert, and there likely won’t be one go-to scorer. One thing is certain: If Watt and Mal Pugh have career years, the Red Stars could be well on their way to their first NWSL championship title.

Will there be a consistent starting XI?

The best answer: There won’t be. Fans should expect to see a starting 11 that varies between matches. Players consistently have spoken about the level of competition throughout the preseason. While earning a starting role is the goal, players also have said they need to be comfortable coming off the bench if that best suits the team. There will be less rotation in the attacking third, but the midfield and backline may see consistent changes this season.

The Red Stars will be without U.S. Women’s National Team players Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson for the first two matches of the Cup. It’s a great opportunity for the team to flex its depth and provide a glimpse of what the starting lineup will look like while players are competing for gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Still, the expectation is that the starting 11 could see a lot of rotation.

Who is in goal when Naeher is gone?

Emily Boyd skipped the Fall Series to pursue a starting goalkeeper position overseas that would set her up for a big 2021 season playing in place of Naeher while she competed in the Olympics. That plan derailed when Boyd tore multiple ligaments in her knee and underwent surgery that she’s still recovering from. She expects to be ready to play following the Challenge Cup. In the meantime, supplemental player Cassie Miller will be in goal. So, while the answer is clear for the Challenge Cup, it’s still unclear who will replace Naeher while she’s in Tokyo. Boyd knows she will have to earn back her place as the No. 2 goalkeeper.

What will the backline look like without Ertz?

Rory Dames has talked about moving Ertz to the midfield since last year, and when the team announced its 2021 roster, she was listed among the midfielders. With Casey Kreuger and Sarah Gorden playing outside back, depending on the formation, that leaves one center-back position open with the other filled by Davidson. Without Bianca St. Georges, who is still recovering from a meniscus tear in January, any of the Red Stars’ young defenders could slide into that role. Again, this is another place where the Red Stars’ depth will prove lethal.

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