Where EAST meets the Northwest
COMPETITIVE CUP. Nahomi Kawasumi (#9) of Sky Blue FC defends Kumi Yokoyama
(#17) of the Washington Spirit during the first half of a National Women’s
Soccer League (NWSL) Challenge Cup match at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman,
Utah. The NWSL Challenge Cup was held June 27 through July 26, with the Houston
Dash taking home the trophy after defeating the Chicago Red Stars. The teams
completed within a quarantine bubble in Utah. During the tournament, more than
2,000 coronavirus tests were completed with no players, coaches, or other
tournament staff testing positive. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
OL Reign forward Yuka Momiki (#21). (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
North Carolina Courage defender Abby Erceg (left, #6). (AP
ZERO POSITIVE TEST RESULTS. Utah Royals FC forward Raisa
Strom-Okimoto (white jersey) battles for the ball during a National Women’s
Soccer League Challenge Cup match against the Houston Dash at Zions Bank Stadium
in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
From The Asian Reporter, V30, #09 (August 3, 2020), pages 1, 11 & 12.
Successful NWSL Challenge Cup featured crop of talented
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
After a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Women’s Soccer
League (NWSL) kicked off its 2020 season with the Challenge Cup tournament. With
the exception of the Orlando Pride, which withdrew before the tournament started
because several players and staff tested positive for the virus, all the current
NWSL teams participated. The competition came as a welcome antidote to the
coronavirus sports drought, and the games featured plenty of Asian talent,
especially Japanese forwards.
With a tightly packed schedule, a lot of players on each squad appeared in
the Challenge Cup, including several mentioned in my June column. Japanese
forward Yuka Momiki, for example, showed why OL Reign was so excited to sign
her, but also why she may struggle for quality minutes.
The Reign played five tournament games, and Momiki started just one of them,
a 0-2 loss to the Houston Dash. Though she didn’t make a difference in that
game, she needed only nine minutes to leave her mark in the match that followed.
Coming into a scoreless draw, Momiki delivered a beautiful cross to Bethany
Balcer, who scored the game-winning goal.
It would be the Reign’s only goal of the tournament, as they followed that
match with two scoreless draws. The second of those came in the quarterfinal
matchup against the Chicago Red Stars, one of three such draws in that round. In
the penalty-kick shootout that followed, Momiki converted her chance, but two of
her teammates missed, and the Reign were eliminated by Chicago.
Captain Abby Erceg and the defending champion North Carolina Courage also had
a disappointing tournament finish. The Courage rolled to four victories in the
preliminary round of games, as Erceg anchored a backline that allowed just one
goal over that span. She even scored the game-winning goal against the Chicago
The Courage’s quarterfinal match against the winless Portland Thorns should
have been an easy victory. Instead, Portland goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom and the
Thorns defense smothered the Courage, and Portland sent Erceg and the Courage
home with an upset 1-0 victory.
Japanese forward Nahomi Kawasumi and Sky Blue FC fared better in the
Challenge Cup, advancing to the semifinal round. Kawasumi started all six of her
club’s matches and scored a dramatic second goal in a 2-0 thumping of the
Houston Dash. When the Houston keeper left the box to clear a loose ball, it
landed near Kawasumi, who lifted a long 40-yard shot over the keeper’s head into
Kawasumi contributed to Sky Blue’s penalty-kick shootout victory over the
Washington Spirit in the quarterfinals, but Chicago bottled her up in the
semifinals. The Red Stars scored twice in the first 11 minutes, and Sky Blue
couldn’t recover, losing 2-3.
Chicago has its own Asian force in Japanese forward Yuki Nagasato, whom we
covered last November. In 2019, she scored eight goals and led the NWSL with
eight assists, but seven of those assists went to superstar Samantha Kerr, who
is now playing with Chelsea’s women’s side.
The Red Stars are figuring out how Nagasato and the team can play without
Kerr’s world-class talent. Chicago had a rough start in the tournament, winning
just one of its first four preliminary matches, with Nagasato playing in two of
them and contributing just one shot on goal.
Then Nagasato suffered a left leg injury that kept her out of the rest of the
Challenge Cup. In the quarterfinal match, Chicago edged the OL Reign on penalty
kicks, 4-3, then defeated Sky Blue, 3-2, to face the Houston Dash in the
championship game. Chicago sorely needed Nagasato, as they didn’t get anything
going on offense against the Dash, who won 2-0 for the franchise’s first ever
Two other players with Asian roots appeared in the Challenge Cup, one of them
making her NWSL debut, the other seeking to expand her role. The Washington
Spirit saw the first minutes from Japanese forward Kumi Yokoyama, whom they
signed last December.
Just 26 years old, Yokoyama has been a scoring threat everywhere she played.
In five years with AC Nagano Parceiro in Japan’s J3 League, she scored 99 goals
in 144 appearances. She also scored six goals in 24 games with FFC Frankfurt in
Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga. With Japan’s national team, she has scored 17 goals
in 43 appearances.
In addition to her nose for the goal, Yokoyama is known for her excellent
ball skills, both of which were in evidence in her four Challenge Cup starts. In
games against Portland and Chicago in the preliminary round, she had some great
opportunities, but was unable to convert them into goals.
And in her last two games, Yokoyama drew six total fouls, a great indication
of her skill on the ball and the danger she presents. Unfortunately, she wasn’t
able to show more of her abilities after the Spirit fell to Sky Blue in the
Another player we can expect to see more from is a legendary college forward
with Asian roots. At the University of Hawai‘i, Raisa Strom-Okimoto became the
first Rainbow Warrior to earn Player of the Year honors in the Big West
Conference. That was not surprising after a senior season in which she led the
conference in scoring and tied for second with three game-winning goals.
Despite such a great college career, Strom-Okimoto didn’t think she could go
pro. But Utah surprised her with a tryout invitation before last season, and
then surprised her again by offering her a yearlong contract to fill in for
players appearing in the World Cup. Though she didn’t make many appearances, she
impressed the team enough to earn a contract for this season.
Ready to prove herself, Strom-Okimoto already saw more minutes in the
Challenge Cup than she did all of last season, when she totalled just 17 minutes
in three appearances. At the same number of appearances in the Challenge Cup,
Strom-Okimoto amassed a whopping 122 minutes, including two starts.
In her first start, she registered her first two shots, and then nearly
registered her first assist. She played in two more matches, then watched
helplessly from the bench as Utah fell to the Houston Dash, 2-3, in a
tie-breaker shootout in the quarterfinal match.
Utah definitely saw enough of Strom-Okimoto to give her more minutes in the
future. And we will all look forward to seeing more from this impressive crop of
Japanese forwards — and other Asian stars — when a regular season is held. We
wish them all good health on and off the field.
The NWSL Challenge Cup kicked off June 27 and the championship match was
played on July 26. The teams completed within a quarantine bubble in Utah.
During the tournament, more than 2,000 coronavirus tests were completed with no
players, coaches, or other tournament staff testing positive. To view Challenge
Cup game recaps and videos, visit <www.nwslsoccer.com/schedule>.
To learn about the league rules in relation to coronavirus safety protocols
followed during the competition, visit <www.nwslsoccer.com/2020-nwsl-challenge-cup-protocols>.
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