Chicago Red Stars: 2021 Challenge Cup Preview

Chicago Red Stars in action. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).
Chicago Red Stars in action. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images). /

NWSL soccer is returning with another edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup this month. While the tournament was created out of necessity last season in order to have a “bubble competition” during the pandemic, it seems that the league has decided that it was so much fun that it might become a regular pre-season tournament. This means more NWSL and, more importantly for us, more Chicago Red Stars. So let’s look forward at what this tournament will have in store for Red Stars fans.

It is an exciting time and one of growth for the league.

So how have the Chicago Red Stars changed since we last saw them? The biggest exits over the offseason was a trade with Racing Louisville that sent Yuki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill to Kentucky, while giving Chicago full protection from the Expansion Draft. This allowed the Red Stars to retain their allocated USWNT players, but losing a fan-favorite and a promising attacker is going to hurt.

More from MLS Multiplex

However, there were some key additions. A separate trade with Sky Blue FC netted Chicago Mallory Pugh and Sarah Woldmoe and the 2021 season will also see the return of defensive midfielder Nikki Stanton. It will be interesting to see how Pugh, a regular USWNT call-up, will fit into a Red Stars attack that still seems unsure of who will be the goal-scorer.

As for the schedule, the Chicago Red Stars will kick-off the tournament in Houston against the Dash on Friday, April 9th. They’ll return home the next week to face the Portland Thorns on Thursday, April 15th and remain at SeatGeek Stadium against Kansas City on Tuesday, April 20th. Chicago will end the group stage in Seattle against OL Reign. Overall, the Red Stars have drawn a tough tournament this time around, with defending champs Houston Dash, perennial powerhouse Portland Thorns, and an OL Reign team that is continuing to get better.

In fact, it’s uncertain if the Chicago Red Stars will match their usual strength since there are questions from the previous season that are still unanswered. The big mystery going into the 2020 season was “Who will score the goals?” and unfortunately, we still don’t know. Prior to the Challenge Cup, it was believed that Kealia Watt would be the new goalscorer, but the most dangerous players on the pitch were Chicago’s defenders.

While Mal Pugh’s addition to the team, there’s certainly more firepower to the attack; but Pugh is a similar player to Watt in that she’s much more useful in facilitating the attack. A true finisher needs to step up in order for the Red Stars to stand a chance this season, whether it’s Watt, Pugh, or even Sarah Luebbert.

One thing that doesn’t worry me about the Chicago Red Stars is the midfield. With the acquisition of Sarah Woldmoe and Nikki Stanton, an already stacked midfield just looks even better. It’s actually important for the Red Stars to have a strong central midfield so that Julie Ertz can remain at centerback, seeing as there is a bit of a depth issue at that central defense area. The Red Stars really do have a wealth of options at every position other than centerback and striker and if those problem areas truly become issues, coach Rory Dames has players with enough versatility to shift into a formation that will accommodate for those issues.

The bottom line for the Chicago Red Stars in the 2021 Challenge Cup is honestly the same as the 2020 Challenge Cup: No one is quite sure of how to approach this team yet. Despite having the same issues mentioned in this article, last year’s team made it to the final. While I may make a big deal about a lack of a goalscorer, as long as the team scores enough overall, it won’t matter. Chicago will win or lose this tournament in the final third and we’ll see what happens on Friday.

Stay tuned to ‘MLS Multiplex‘ for more action from the NWSL this season!