The Orlando Pride pulled out of the NWSL Challenge Cup on Monday after players tested positive for COVID-19. This is a real blow to a team that had much to prove and a few of the players have voiced their disappointment publicly on social media.
Fans are also saddened over this news, and it sure is going to be different watching the tournament without the Pride. NWSL fans all over the league will miss what players like Marta, Ashlyn Harris, and Sydney Leroux would have done on the field, while Pride fans will miss out on seeing some of the team’s new faces.
While every game that Pride fans watch will be upsetting, the Orlando faithful can still watch the tournament. They simply need a new rooting interest. Here are some thoughts that could give Pride fans a reason to root for each team.
Chicago Red Stars
If you want big-names players, then follow the Red Stars. Chicago has the most USWNT players who have their salaries paid by the U.S. Soccer Federation on its Challenge Cup roster — Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz, Casey Short, and Morgan Brian. They also have big-name NWSL players like Kealia Watt — formerly Kealia Ohai — Savannah McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato, and Katie Johnson. Oh, and don’t forget that trade that Chicago had with the Pride back in the draft that sent Rachel Hill to the Red Stars.
Ex-Orlando Pride midfielder Christine Nairn played an important role for Houston last season, and she should vital this year too. Nairn might just be the best former Pride player participating in the tournament. The Dash have a relatively easy schedule and could take advantage of it. For all you Nairn fans out there, Houston is the team to cheer for.
North Carolina Courage
Do you like winners? If the answer is yes, you’ll probably want to root for the Courage. North Carolina not only won the NWSL championship in back-to-back seasons but is also the three-time defending regular season champion (once as the Western New York Flash). There is a reason why the Courage have the best odds to win the tournament. The team is loaded with USWNT stars — Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, and Samantha Mewis — and Lynn Williams has regularly been one of the top scorers in the league.
Orlando Pride original Dani Weatherholt moved out west this off-season. She has the most appearances out of all Pride players and had been an essential part of the team’s midfield the past few years. The Reign also have former Pride forward Jasmyne Spencer on the team. OL Reign is an impressive team and made the playoffs the past two years. With players like Rosie White, Allie Long, and Sofia Huerta, the Reign will undoubtedly be a fun team to watch.
Portland Thorns FC
The Courage are the clear favorites to win the tournament, but perhaps you’re tired of watching the same team win every season. If that’s the case, and you still want a good team to watch, start following the Thorns. Portland is the team that I’m betting on to win it all. While Tobin Heath will not be participating, the Thorns are still loaded with talent: Adrianna Franch, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Christine Sinclair will all be participating.
Sky Blue FC
If you like underdogs, Sky Blue is the team to root for. Sky Blue has the worst odds to win the tournament and for a good reason. They won just six games in the past two years and Carli Lloyd won’t be playing due to a minor injury. However, the New Jersey side has gotten steadily better and can pull off an upset or two.
Utah Royals FC
The NWSL has three teams in the top tier — North Carolina, Portland, and Chicago. Every year these three teams make the playoffs, and if you like to bet, it would be silly not to put your money on one of these teams to win the league. Utah is approaching that tier as well. The Royals missed the playoffs the past two seasons by a combined six points. They are not the biggest attacking threat, but led by Amy Rodriguez, Utah is always a threat to find the back of the net, even though Christen Press is not participating.
Another underdog, Washington is a side that plays well but often just can’t come away with wins. Former Pride goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe had a stellar year last season and was named the goalkeeper of the year. The Spirit finished 2019 in fifth place, just four points below the playoff line. While they might struggle in the preliminary stage — Washington faces Chicago, North Carolina, Portland, and Houston — the Spirit could make a run once the knockout stage begins.