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NWSL Challenge Cup: Lavelle shines, Courage unleashed

by Jason Longshore

The NWSL returned to the field yesterday in their Challenge Cup event, held in Utah. They overcame the loss of the Orlando Pride for the tournament, added new sponsors, and gained a spotlight that the league has struggled to attain.

That spotlight gained in intensity ahead of the second match of the day as the Chicago Red Stars prepared to play the Washington Spirit. Initially, it was the powerful images of Casey Short that gained most of the attention. The heart-breaking reaction of Short while kneeling during the national anthem, and her teammate Julie Ertz kneeling with her, spread quickly through the online conversation as the match started. However, as the match went on, attention was also being placed on the Chicago players who stood for the anthem instead of kneeling. The media were not allowed to ask questions about the situation last night during the virtual media availability.

Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler tweeted out a thread about the situation this morning that started with:

This conversation will continue ahead of Tuesday's matches in the tournament. Many will be waiting to see what will happen during the national anthem ahead of the Utah vs. Houston and OL Reign vs. Sky Blue FC matches. Hopefully, many will also be anticipating two excellent matches like were seen on Saturday.

Rose Lavelle was outstanding for the Spirit in her 65 minutes of play, scoring the opening goal of the match and nearly finding the back of the net on two other occasions. Ashley Hatch forced USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher into a giveaway seconds into the second half to stretch Washington's lead to 2-0. Morgan Gautrat, who surprised her husband by dropping her maiden name Brian, pulled one back for Chicago with a low strike to the far post. Spirit GK Aubrey Bledsoe got a touch to it but was unable to keep it out. She bounced back with multiple saves late to ensure the win for the young Washington side.

The first match of the tournament took a little longer to heat up. The defending champion North Carolina Courage needed a stoppage time winner from Lynn Williams to defeat a scrappy Portland Thorns squad. Williams caused Portland problems throughout the afternoon, but was unable to beat the debuting Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby until the 94th minute. Samantha Mewis picked her out on the back post with a pinpoint cross to win the match. The goal was similar to the Courage's opener in the 75th minute. Hailie Mace put in a cross to the near post that found Debinha unmarked. Portland responded to falling behind quickly when Lindsey Horan's header fooled Courage goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé, who was only able to push the shot off the crossbar. Simone Charley kept her head during the confusing sequence and poked home the rebound. We'll have our next Challenge CupDate tomorrow as Jessica Charman and I talk about everything from Matchday 1 and look ahead to the matches scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. You can download it on the Soccer Down Here network on Monday evening.

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