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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 Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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 Japanese forwards

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 Red Stars.

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 the net.

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 trophy.

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 quarterfinals.

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 <>. To learn about the league rules in relation to coronavirus safety protocols followed during the competition, visit <>.

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