NWSL Challenge Cup: Four takeaways from Louisville-North Carolina, Houston-Kansas City

The National Women’s Soccer League second annual Challenge Cup is nearing its completion, with week four fixtures shaking up East division standings. Racing Louisville FC hosted North Carolina Courage, while Houston Dash welcomed the return of their international players on the road against Kansas City. Here’s four takeaways from Monday’s matches.

1. Debinha’s MVP start to 2021.

North Carolina Courage kept things interesting in the East division standings with a 3-2 win over Louisville on Monday, and are now level on six points with Gotham FC in the East. Head coach Paul Riley will likely remained concerned with his backline’s continued struggles as they’ve conceded multiple goals during their last three matches, but a bright spot on both sides of the ball has been Brazilian midfielder Debinha.

The 2019 NWSL Championship final MVP has gotten off to a remarkable start in 2021, providing attacking options and defensive coverage for the Courage. Her go-ahead goal for North Carolina was a stunner, but her work on the ball in the box provided enough chaos to create an own goal late in the game to produce a third, game winning goal for the Courage.

She created three chances to go with there five total shots, and one goal on the evening. But her work rate off the ball and on defense has elevated her game over the last several seasons in NWSL with North Carolina. The Brazilian international ended the match with four tackles and zero fouls conceded.

2. Racing Louisville FC eliminated in the East.

The 2021 Challenge Cup offered a look at one of the league’s newest clubs with Racing Louisville FC making their debut at Lynn Family Stadium to kick off Challenge Cup opening weekend. They were eliminated from Challenge Cup contention with their 3-2 loss against North Carolina, but perhaps earned more out the tournament matches and game day experiences.

Plenty of bright spots for the Kentucky side in their elimination as the team will likely continue building off some strong individual performances during the Challenge Cup. Forward Ceci Kizer has introduced herself as an offensive centerpiece for the team after scoring the franchise’s first goal during opening weekend and earning another in the loss against North Carolina while recording an assist to close out her game. 

The team is still searching for their first Challenge Cup win, and have a chance to get it in their final tournament match against Gotham FC on May 2.

3. Kristie Mewis continues to shine.

The 2020 Challenge Cup champions title defense ended rather early in the tournament as Portland Thorns FC locked up the West division with nine points on three consecutive wins during the competition. The Dash struggled in their first two matches to generate a threatening attack without their missing international stars, but that quickly changed with their return ahead of the Kansas City game. 

After a 10 month absence due to an ACL injury, Mewis returned to the pitch in 2019, but had a break out 2020 for Houston during last year’s Challenge Cup. Her performances have caught the eye of U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski and her time in UWSNT camps earned her an allocated player contract with U.S. soccer ahead of the 2021 NWSL season. 

For Houston’s remaining Challenge Cup games, Mewis will likely continue to play a significant role. She had an immediate impact for the Houston side against Kansas City that was on the hunt for both their first goal and first win of the tournament. The midfielder recorded three shots, scored two goals, and created two chances in her return from UWSNT duty. 

4. Kansas City returns home.

Kansas City’s re-introduction to NWSL came during the 2020 offseason. After the folding of the former FC Kansas City (2013-2017) the quick turnaround ahead of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup saw the franchise make waves in the 2021 draft, and introduce primary colors for the team with a temporary badge and kits to give the organization more time to prepare an official crest and future kits. 

The team is set to play their matches at Legends Field, but due to continued construction at its home stadium, KC NWSL played their first ever match at Children’s Mercy Park, home to Sporting Kansas City.  With the west division locked up by Portland Thorns FC, all remaining West division matches are for further prep ahead of the regular season, kicking off on May 15.

That didn’t negate the emotions of women’s professional soccer returning to Kansas City, as fans let the club hear how much they were missed on a consolation goal from Michele Vasconcelos — the first for KC NWSL back in a home stadium.

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