Pandemic Sports

Soccer’s NWSL Challenge Cup Is Downright Binge-Worthy

This tournament has everything! And it’s easy to catch up on the action so far.

By Margaret Seiler July 7, 2020

Portland Thorns Christine Sinclair, Bella Bixby, Lindsey Horan, Madison Pogarch, Christen Westphal, and Morgan Weaver

Portland Thorns Christine Sinclair, Bella Bixby, Lindsey Horan, Madison Pogarch, Christen Westphal, and Morgan Weaver before their July 1 game against the Chicago Red Stars, part of the NWSL Challenge Cup

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve already shelled out for a month of CBS All Access and been watching the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, the bubble tournament in Salt Lake City that’s the first pro team sports action in the US since March. 

On the off chance watching people kick a ball up and down a field isn’t your usual entertainment, though, the Challenge Cup could be your gateway drug to fandom, or even just a solid bit of much-needed distraction right now as well as a virtual vacation to the Oquirrh Mountains.

To quote Stefon, this tournament has everything! Saxophones, scrunchies, desert sprinklers, mountain sunsets, lens flare, moments of silence, cloned townhouse suburbia, joke Twitter accounts, a strange old man who yells from an arcade and alternates between shiny floral tuxedo jackets and T-shirts with Kristen Wiig in the airplane scene of Bridesmaids, a sliiiiiide!

Bella Bixby

Milwaukie native and Oregon State alum Bella Bixby is one of many Thorns making a professional debut in the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Besides all that (and the soccer itself), there are also dreams coming true right and left. When a lot of those famous national team stars whose names you know opted out of the monthlong tournament (e.g., Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe), it freed a roster space for an up-and-comer. And with five subs allowed per game instead of the NWSL’s usual three, a lot more players are getting their professional debuts or making their first professional starts than in a normal season kickoff. Less than 20 minutes after she came off the bench in the Utah Royals’ opening match, Tziarra King (the no. 8 draft pick out of North Carolina State who was already a finalist for Best Human after her draft acceptance speech, in which she thanked her school’s grounds crew, equipment managers, and sports psychologists) scored her first professional goal—the first day at a new job we all wish we could have.

There are only eight teams to follow (the ninth NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, had several positive coronavirus tests in late June and had to drop out), and you can start bingeing the first 10 games before the action picks up again with the final seeding-round games July 8, 12, and 13. Knockout games begin July 17, with the final July 26. The final is on CBS, but the rest of the games are streaming on CBS All Access (free for a one-week trail, $5.99 for a month, which is about half the price of a stadium beer) and, for international viewers, on TwitchIf catching up on 10 games is too daunting, here’s what not to miss.

A tale of two anthems: Providence Park regulars will absorb every play of the Thorns’ opener against repeat champs the North Carolina Courage, but newbies can get away with watching just the opening game’s anthem, which is performed by a Salt Lake City saxophonist. (Is this more COVID-safe than hiring a singer?) Nearly everyone on the field is kneeling and wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt. You’ll be thinking about how at least part of the sports world is finally catching up with Colin Kaepernick, but to be honest, you’ll probably also be thinking, “Please let him break into ‘Baker Street.’ Please let him break into ‘Baker Street.’ Please let him break into ‘Baker Street.’” Actually, maybe turn the broadcast sound off and crank “Baker Street” instead.

There’s no sax, but in the opening day’s second game, between the Chicago Red Stars and the Washington Spirit, the playing of a recorded anthem included a touching moment between Red Stars stars Casey Short and Julie Ertz. It was unfortunately seized upon by the media and used as a game highlight (and of course here I am seizing upon it and calling it a moment to know) and seems to have spurred a memo to camera operators to zoom in on Black players while the anthem plays. Um, guys, maybe lay off.

Catch the post-game for that Kristen Wiig shirt, worn by Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-born player in several old US leagues turned early MLS coach whom CBS has brought in for commentary. He really appreciates Portland player Lindsey Horan (as one should) and appears to have read the Wikipedia page of Portland and Canada Women’s National Team captain Christine Sinclair, but he doesn’t seem to know a ton about the NWSL. Luckily, the network is also leaning on Chicago soccer writer Sandra Herrera and others for predictions and analysis.

Two second halves on June 30: The Utah Royals vs. Houston Dash second half has that aforementioned Tziarra King goal and some magic from Spain’s Vero Boquete. In Sky Blue FC (New Jersey) vs. OL Reign (the team formerly known as Seattle) catch Jasmyne Spencer’s near-goal (and say-their-names hair ribbon—Spencer has her own clothing and accessory line, too) and the impressive professional debuts of Canada’s Evelyne Viens and Ghana’s Jennifer Cudjoe.

Lindsey Horan’s sick turf burn: Why are almost all of these games on a minor-league turf field instead of Real Salt Lake’s major-league grass field? Sexism? Sadism? Proximity to the bubble housing? Who knows? But the second half of the Thorns’ July 1 game against Chicago is worth checking out for an example of turf’s downsides, as well as rookie Autumn Smithers’s scoring attempt from way out yonder.

Stellar soccer in both July 5 matches: Maybe the best game day so far, with a repeat of the championship-game pairing from last season between the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars and a must-see nail-biter for the Portland Thorns and Washington Spirit. The Thorns-Spirit pregame panel is worth a look, too, as Rongen, when asked about the players he’s most excited to watch in the next 90 minutes, starts listing off some Utah Royals players. The Royals had played the night before. (Why is this man here? Who is this man? I went to an MLS game he coached in Massachusetts in the ’90s, but he must have been behind the scoreboard smoking the whole time because I have no recollection of seeing him. Sorry to this man?) Watch Herrera and CBS Sports HQ anchor Sherree Burruss manage to keep from laughing.