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Three things we learned after the first week of the Challenge Cup

The first week of the Challenge Cup produced thrilling moments that fans have been waiting desperately for, but concerning ones as well.

Chicago Red Stars forward Katie Johnson (33) brings the ball upfield among defenders during an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match, Friday, April 9, 2021, in Houston.
AP Photos

The first week of the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup produced thrilling moments that fans have been waiting desperately for but concerning ones as well.

Here are three things we learned after the first week of the tournament.

NWSL attempts to set new standards for anti-discrimination as clubs take their own stances

The league’s first week of play was overshadowed by claims from Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden that she and her boyfriend were racially profiled by a member of the BBVA Stadium’s security staff following Chicago’s scoreless draw against the Dash.

The league formally opened an investigation under its anti-discrimination policy on Tuesday.

The league also announced in a list of findings by the league’s disciplinary committee that it would be fining the Red Stars for a violation of a league directive. Grant Wahl reported it the fine was related to partial team owner Sarah Spain’s tweet of support for Gorden after the league sent its board of governors notice directing them not to comment. Wahl also reported Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fined for the same reason.

Many fans expressed on social media that they took the league’s response to the showings of support for Gorden as censorship.

As the league’s investigation progresses, individual clubs and players made it clear where they stand, and that’s with Gorden. Red Stars players and the Black Women’s Players Collective shared posts condemning racism and discrimination in the league. The BWPC post also acknowledged that Gorden’s experience was not an isolated incident in the NWSL.

Thursday night, the entire team arrived at SeatGeek Stadium ahead of their match against the Portland Thorns wearing shirts that read “Believe, Support, Protect Black People.” The Red Stars also elected not to play the national anthem ahead of the match.

Portland Thorns threaten the Red Stars hopes of winning it all

While players and coaches frequently discuss the parity within the league, the Portland Thorns are certainly the greatest threat to the Red Stars’ hopes of winning the Challenge Cup title. Dames has said that he schedules the Thorns every preseason because of the challenge it presents to his team and the weaknesses the Thorns expose. Unable to schedule that preseason match this year, Dames got his team ready playing multiple collegiate programs, including Loyola and Notre Dame.

Following the scoreless draw against the Houston Dash in the tournament’s opening match, Dames said the attack was able to get into areas of the field that they wanted to, but decision making was an issue. The team faced similar issues in the second match of the Challenge Cup against the Thorns at SeatGeek Stadium. This match was marked as an early decider of which team would come out on top of the western division, and the Red Stars fell to the Thorns 1-0, exposing their lack of an established striker in the process.

Preview of what competition will look like during the Olympics

Through the first two weeks of the Challenge Cup, teams are getting a glimpse at what competition will look like when their national team players are competing in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in July and August. The Red Stars are in a good position because of their depth but still struggled to find a rhythm in the attacking third in their first two games of the Challenge Cup. It isn’t likely that the Red Stars will lose any players from their attack to Vlatko Andonovski’s 18-player Olympic roster. With over two months before they lose Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz and most likely Tierna Davidson, there is more than enough time for the team to settle in. A key in winning every trophy available this year will be taking advantage of weakened rosters during the Olympic period.