Christine Sinclair, Carli Lloyd, and a national broadcast: the stage was set for one of the most exciting soccer events of the year. The Challenge Cup final pitted Sinclair’s Thorns against Lloyd’s Gotham FC with both lineups bursting with international pedigree. The squads could not have come from more different places in their respective histories; with Portland the perennial powerhouse finally poised to lift a Cup, and Gotham fresh off of a rebrand that seemed to have breathed new life into a franchise that hadn’t made much noise in a while.
Sinclair entered the game tied for the active lead in league goals with fifty-nine, but it didn’t take her long to stand alone atop the list. In the eighth minute, the Canadian icon battled the ball back from a Gotham defender, turned on a dime and launched a curling shot past Didi Haracic. The goal did not come against the run of play, with Gotham opening the game content to sit back and Portland all too happy to play along with the strategy.
NJ/NY had their chance at an equalizer less than 10 minutes later after a rare Becky Sauerbrunn mistake. The American defender tried to play the ball out of the back, but it instead ended up on the foot of Gotham forward Midge Purce. Thankfully for Sauerbrunn, Purce and Lloyd were out of synch and the ball stayed out of Adrianna Franch’s goal.
Portland youngsters Sophia Smith and Simone Charley earned their spots in the starting lineup and proved to be dangerous for the Thorns. The two combined for multiple chances. Charley forced Haracic into a good save shortly before winning a free kick that Lindsey Horan wound up cracking off the crossbar.
At the half, Portland had fired 11 shots to NJ/NY’s two and had held 58% of the possession.
Danger became imminent for the Thorns in the 55th minute when, in transition, Lloyd looked like she was about to connect with Paige Monaghan. Portland defender Natalia Kuikka came up big with the intervention to put the Gotham attack at bay, even if only for a few minutes.
Just six minutes after Kuikka’s stop, Purce came down the wing and fired a cross into Franch’s box. USWNT teammates Sauerbrunn and Lloyd both went up for the floating ball, but Lloyd got ever so slightly higher and was able to nod it home to put her team on level terms.
Gotham’s goal appeared to reinvigorate the Thorns who seemed to slant the pitch for the next 15 minutes, with Smith leading the charge. Portland’s attack received a boost in the 68th minute when superstar midfielder Rocky Rodriguez stepped onto the pitch for Angela Salem. Going back to Smith, the 20-year-old fired a strong shot over the bar and sent another one wide before being subbed off in the 76th minute for Morgan Weaver.
The game tightened up through the final fifteen minutes with both teams showcasing their ability to transition into a cagier style of play. Gotham did come tantalizingly close to winning it at the death but Ifeoma Onumonu couldn’t capitalize off of being left alone at the back post.
So, with the score deadlocked at 1-1 after the full 90 minutes, the 2021 Challenge Cup final would be decided from the penalty spot. This would be only the second time that an NWSL trophy would be awarded based on the result of a penalty shootout.
NJ/NY kicked first, and it was newly-acquired forward Allie Long who got things going when she fired the ball past Franch. Portland wasted no time breaking out the big guns, having Sinclair be their first player that stepped to the spot, who made no mistake.
Sinclair’s counterpart captain Lloyd was Gotham’s second shooter and as she’s been throughout her career, the American was clinical. Lloyd’s American teammate Megan Klingenberg was next up for the Thorns. She opened the door for Gotham by firing her spot kick off of the bar.
The pressure was on for Jennifer Cudjoe, who could have the dagger shot at her foot, but like Klingenberg, she sent it off the bar. Horan followed up with a goal, making it two all after three shooters.
The next three rounds saw all six shooters convert, sending the shootout into sudden death.
Nahomi Kawasumi was designated as Gotham’s seventh shooter, but her name was not meant for the history books as Franch got a hand to the ball, giving Portland the advantage. It was substitute Weaver who made the walk to the spot from center for her chance to win it all. And she did. Off of Weaver’s boot, the Portland Thorns became Challenge Cup champs.
When asked about his super sub’s game winning goal, Thorns’ head coach Marc Parsons simply said: “she deserved that moment.”
The Next Steps
While this was a final, it was only the first step of the NWSL action we’re set for in 2021. The regular season kicks off next weekend and when asked to reflect on what this win means for his team’s regular season, Parsons referred to the Challenge Cup as being a “huge steppingstone”, suggesting that we have not seen the last of the Thorns on a podium this year.
For Gotham’s part, head coach Freya Coombe acknowledged that her team has a lot of room for growth and that playing in the final without getting to lift the trophy is “really motivating.” Coombe described her team as having: “a certain mentality [to us] where we have a little bit more belief.”
Both teams will look to build off of this tournament, and certainly this final. With the Challenge Cup serving as a pre-season warmup, it allows teams “to see the chemistry and which relationships come together on the field” according to Coombe. When asked about her move to switching her center backs at half time, NJ/NY’s coach admitted that the competition back there is always strong and makes it a hard decision.
If what we saw in the Challenge Cup is any indication, we are in for a regular season of thrilling games, breakout stars, and an overall growth of the women’s game.
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Photo Credit: Ashley Intile