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Where EAST meets the Northwest


CHALLENGE CUP. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hopes to become one of the first American professional sports leagues to return to action with a Challenge Cup set to begin June 27, 2020. Pictured is North Carolina Courage fullback Abby Erceg playing in a NWSL match against the Portland Thorns at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. (AR Photo/Jody Lim, File)

NWSL. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hopes to become one of the first American professional sports leagues to return to action with a Challenge Cup set to begin June 27, 2020. Pictured is forward Yuka Momiki playing for Japan during a SheBelieves Cup soccer match against Brazil on March 2, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)

SEASON SUBSTITUTED. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is planning a Challenge Cup consisting of a 25-game tournament held entirely in Utah to mark the return to action of its nine clubs. Pictured is Sky Blue FC defender Caprice Dydasco dribbling the ball during a NWSL match against the Orlando Pride in Harrison, New Jersey, in this September 29, 2019 file photo. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano, File)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #07 (June 1, 2020), pages 10 & 11.

NWSL Challenge Cup to spotlight smaller Asian talent pool

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Thanks to COVID-19, most sports leagues worldwide are either frozen in time or slowly thawing out. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hopes to join the latter group by possibly becoming one of the first American professional sports leagues to return to action with a Challenge Cup in late June. When it begins, Asian-American sports fans will have fewer Asian NWSL players to watch, but the ones who remain are sure to help their teams succeed.

As I wrote last November, Asian and Asian-American players are getting harder to find in the NWSL, and this past offseason made matters worse. The biggest loss occurred when Samantha Kerr, the league’s best player, signed with Chelsea FC.

Born to Indian and Australian parents, Kerr won the NWSL Golden Boot three years in a row, the league MVP twice, and set NWSL records in both career goals and goals per season. She never won a NWSL title, but joining Chelsea gave the club an excellent shot at capturing the Women’s Super League championship.

Other teams lost eastern players, too, like the Houston Dash, who waived forward Kyah Simon. Simon became the first player with aboriginal roots to score in a World Cup when she scored twice in the 2011 Women’s World Cup. But she was beset by injuries and had a hard time establishing herself in the NWSL.

Instead, Simon returned to Australia’s W-League, where she plays for Melbourne City FC alongside Lydia Williams, another former NWSL player with aboriginal heritage. Williams was a great goalkeeper for several NWSL teams, including Reign FC last season (the club is now called OL Reign after an ownership change between seasons). But when she was injured, Casey Murphy slid into the starting role, leaving Williams to seek a contract elsewhere.

OL Reign lost another Asian player when they chose not to re-sign defensive midfielder Rumi Utsugi, who had lost her starting role. The Reign, however, announced a recent acquisition that will raise the spirits of all their fans, including those of us following players from the east.

In May, the club signed Japanese-American forward Yuka Momiki, who led Nippon TV Beleza to five titles in Japan’s Nadeshiko League. Since joining the club in 2011, they also won four Empress’s Cups, three Nadeshiko League Cups, and the first-ever Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Club Championship in 2019. Momiki herself was in Nadeshiko’s Best XI in 2016 and 2017 and also starts for Team Japan.

Momiki is known as a playmaker with laser-precise passing and impeccable timing. Not dazzling or showy, the left-footed Momiki makes those around her better, and she has plenty of Reign talent surrounding her. In fact, her signing creates a glut of seven forwards, including Momiki, Megan Rapinoe, Sofia Huerta, and others.

As the best fit on the right side with an unmatched skillset, Momiki should get plenty of minutes, but she may struggle for consistency unless the team commits to her or trades away her competition. However the situation shakes out, the Reign will have an excellent opportunity to shine at the proposed summer tournament.

Another favorite in the tournament, the North Carolina Courage, has fullback Abby Erceg, who has captained two teams to NWSL championships. Erceg, who has Croatian and Maori roots, is also the captain for the New Zealand national team.

The defensive leader began her NWSL career with Chicago in 2013, helping the squad to rise from fifth to second place in the league. Traded to the Western New York Flash in November of 2015, Erceg became team captain and led the Flash to its first and only NWSL championship in 2016.

When the Flash became the North Carolina Courage, their winning ways continued. With Erceg as captain, the Courage have reached the NWSL championship match the past three seasons, winning the last two. With Erceg anchoring the back line and a roster largely unchanged from last season, the Courage have a great chance to win the Challenge Cup.

At the other end of the NWSL table, two Asian players should bolster the hopes of the league’s perennial cellar-dwellers, Sky Blue FC. The club has never improved on its fourth-place finish in 2013, the league’s inaugural season. The worst season was 2018, when they set a team record for futility, winning a single game against 17 losses. They weren’t much better in 2019, winning five games and losing 14.

But the club is looking up this season, thanks to improved practice facilities, a larger stadium, and new

leadership. They will also lean heavily on their talented core, two of whom joined the team last year.

The Reign traded Japanese midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi to Sky Blue before last season, and she appeared in 19 of the team’s 24 matches. Before this season, Sky Blue re-signed Kawasumi, amid acclaim from team leadership.

Head coach Freya Coombe said, "Naho is very technical and calm on the ball, which suits the style of the team. She is a great teammate and a fan favorite." The team’s general manager also praised Kawasumi’s "veteran lead-by-example presence," calling her "an absolute professional" who "brings so much steady energy."

Behind Kawasumi in the Sky Blue formation — though sometimes ahead of her in an attack — is Caprice Dydasco of Hawai‘i. Acquired in a trade with the Washington Spirit, the offensive-minded fullback set a career high in minutes last season, starting 23 of 24 matches.

She also played all over the pitch, from the right and left back spots to one-game stints as right wing and defensive midfielder. Dydasco’s flexibility and positive attitude will be crucial to the team’s success, though expectations should be moderated. Currently, eight of the nine clubs in the NWSL tournament will advance from the first round; Blue Sky would be delighted to be among these eight.

Much as reducing a sauce concentrates its flavors, the NWSL has lowered its overall numbers of Asian players, but those who remain are high impact. Losing Kerr is a disappointment, but Asian-American sports fans still have plenty of talented players to watch beginning June 27.

 

* * *

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #07 (June 1, 2020), pages 10 & 11.

NWSL season will be played in Utah without fans

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced last week that the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup will mark the return to action of its nine clubs.

The cup will include a 25-game tournament scheduled to kick off June 27, 2020 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. While spectators will not be in attendance, fans in the U.S. and Canada will be able to watch all the action via the CBS All Access subscription service, with replays aired on CBS Sports Network. The opening match and the championship game will air live on CBS. Fans outside the U.S. and Canada will be able to stream the full tournament on Twitch.

The tournament, presented by P&G and Secret, marks the league’s first competition since the 2019 championship game that saw the North Carolina Courage defeat the Chicago Red Stars to become back-to-back NWSL champs.

The format of the tournament will feature the league’s nine clubs each playing four games in the preliminary rounds to determine seeding. The top eight teams will advance to the quarterfinals, when the tournament becomes a knockout competition. The semifinals and final will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, with the championship game slated for July 26.

A full tournament schedule, including game times and broadcast details, will be published soon.

The NWSL’s Medical Task Force, comprised of a team doctor from each of the league’s nine teams, has worked tirelessly over the last nine weeks, in coordination with public health officials, to develop thorough and detailed medical and testing protocols to ensure the safest environment for a return to play and competition. Each player, official, and essential staff member will be tested 48 hours prior to departure for Utah and upon arrival and will be subject to consistent testing, temperature readings, and symptom review throughout their stay in Utah. The full protocols have received unanimous support from the NWSL board of directors and the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA).

"As our country begins to safely reopen and adjust to our collective new reality, and with the enthusiastic support of our players, owners, as well as our new and current commercial partners, the NWSL is thrilled to bring professional soccer back to the United States," said NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird. "This exciting monthlong tournament will showcase our league’s talented players and provide our fans the type of world-class entertainment they’ve come to expect from the NWSL."

Building on the momentum of a record-breaking 2019 and the growing success of women’s sports, on and off the field, the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup is a unique opportunity for players to return to competition with the unanimous support of the league owners and the players association.

"The NWSLPA, working closely alongside NWSL, is excited to provide players the opportunity to return to sport, while also securing compensation and other necessities to make sure players’ concerns, feedback, and safety are at the forefront of all conversations," said NWSLPA executive directors Yael Averbuch and Brooke Elby. "As the plans for the tournament unfolded, it was our priority as the NWSLPA to protect our players, and we feel that NWSL shares those values."

The "international-style" tournament allows the league to safely return to the pitch and will be hosted by Dell Loy Hansen, owner of Utah Royals FC, who will accommodate all housing, training, and competition needs for the league’s teams and create an "NWSL Village" to control as much of the environment as possible.

"With the efforts of our frontline workers, our state’s early adoption of preventative measures, and our facilities at Zions Bank Real Academy, Rio Tinto Stadium, and America First Credit Union Field, Utah is uniquely prepared to host the nine teams in the NWSL and put on a tremendous tournament," said Hansen. "With the full support of the governor and the medical experts in our community, we are thrilled to bring the tournament to Utah."

Commissioner Baird and Hansen have met with Utah governor Gary Herbert, lieutenant governor Spencer Cox, the Utah Sports Commission, and local health officials, and all parties have enthusiastically endorsed the way forward.

To learn more about the upcoming tournament, please visit <www.portlandthorns.com>. or <www.nwslsoccer.com>.

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