7/17/20 – Indy 11 wins – home again Sat 7/18, NWSL Final Sunday CBS, FA Cup Semi’s Sat/Sun  

Indy 11

So our Indy 11 became one of the first US Sports back with fans – -as we knocked off St. Louis 2-0 in front of limited fans in the stands.   The 11 will host Sporting KC  in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium with limited fans in attendance again this Saturday at 7 pm .(click here for tickets)   Four match-ups with Louisville FC headline the schedule along with 4 games vs St. Louis –these 3 teams should battle it out to make the expanded playoffs.


So the semi-finals are Friday 10 pm and on Saturday at 8 and 10 pm on CBS allacess.  The games have been good –the ones I watch on replay on CBS Sports Network (I refuse to sign for another soccer firewall) – I wish all the games were here on TV – but we do get the big game next Sunday 12:30 pm on NBC the finals!!  NWSL standouts move on to quarterfinals.

Pulisic Continues to Shine in EPL

I can’t tell you how exciting it has been for me to watch a healthy Christian Pulisic back on the pitch for Chelsea and playing well.  This weekend we get FA Cup action on Sunday afternoon at 1 pm with Chelsea vs Man United in FA Cup Semi’s on ESPN+.  Pulisic scored a goal and had an assist this week for a Chelsea side battling for a top 4 slot in the EPL and Champions League play next season.  FA Cup Semi-Finals are Sat/Sun this weekend as Arsenal faces Man City on Sat at 2:45 pm on ESPN+, while the Spurs and Leicester Sun at 11 am before Chelsea Man U at 1 all on ESPN+.  Man sure would be cool if ESPN picked up the Chelsea vs Man U game on ESPN 1 or 2 – could do a huge audience for that with a Sunday 1 pm kickoff.  God forbid we have a big game featuring our best American player playing for a top 4 club like Chelsea battling mega team Man United?  Anyway off my soapbox!

Carmel High School Boys Soccer Tactical Camp

July 27 – 30 – River Road Soccer Complex. Camp offered for boys and girls ages 8 – 14. 9:00 – 11:00 am. $95


Sat,  July 11

12:30 pm  NBC                                    Norwich vs Burnley

2:45 pm ESPN+                                   Arsenal vs Man City  FA Cup

7 pm ESPN+ TV4                                INDY 11 Host Sporting KC 2

8 pm ESPN                                          Portland vs Houston  

10:30 pm ESPN                                   LA Galaxy vs LAFC  

Sun, July 12  

7:30  am NBCSN                                 Burnley vs Sheffield United

11 am bIN Sport/FuboTV                Alaves vs Barcelona

11 am NBCSN                                     Tottenham vs Leceister City FA Cup Semis

1 pm ESPN+                                        Man United vs Chelsea  FA Cup

3 pm beIJN Sport                                Leganes vs Real Madrid

3:$5 pm ESPN+                                   Roma vs Inter

8 pm FS1                                             Chicago vs San Jose  

10:30 pm FS1                                      Seattle vs Vancouver  


Pulisic’s 1st season Stats compare to Mane or Sterling – eSPNFC
Farke: Pulisic will be ‘world-class’; Lampard praises USMNT star

WATCH: Pulisic cross finds Giroud to give Chelsea lead

Lampard – Pulisics Game at Another Level

Lampard Thrilled with Pulisic – but don’t compare him to Hazard yet – GOAL.com

Pulisic Scores and has 8/10 Score in Win for Chelsea

How American Coach – became a coaching Star in Europe – ESPNFC
American coach Marsch named Austrian Bundesliga Coach of the Year

U.S. great Reyna: Son Gio enjoying Dortmund

Dest: I want to play with Ronaldo, Messi
Weston McKennie entertains offers

Ranking the eight USWNT Women’s World Cup teams
Op-Ed: If the goal is equity, the U.S. women and men should team up to bargain with U.S. Soccer
  -Grant Wahl

EPL & World
Lampard admits it is ‘going to be tough’ as Chelsea push for Champions League

Manchester United vs Chelsea, FA Cup semi-final: What time is kick-off on Sunday, what TV channel is it on and what’s our prediction?

• Buffon, 42, signs one-year deal at Juve


Armchair Analyst Breakdown on MLS Tourney – Matt Doyle


NWSL standouts move on to quarterfinals– 4hGraham Hays

Thorns FC’s Lindsey Horan provides a glimpse inside NWSL bubble
Thorns FC goalkeeper Bella Bixby gives us some perspective on playing with no fans

Crystal Dunn and Brianna Pinto talk about being Black soccer players

‘Pulisic can’t be compared to Hazard – he carried Chelsea!’ – USMNT forward still learning, says Burley

Goal.comJul 9, 2020, 5:44 AM

Christian Pulisic may be enjoying a stunning run of form at Chelsea but he cannot be compared to Blues legend Eden Hazard because the Belgian “carried one of the biggest teams in the Premier League for a few seasons”, says Craig Burley.Inevitable links are being made between two star turns to have filled a left-sided attacking berth at Stamford Bridge.When the decision was reluctantly taken to offload Hazard to Real Madrid in the summer of 2019, suitable cover was required to fill sizeable boots in west London.Chelsea always hoped that Pulisic would be the man to step up, with the United States international having been lured away from Borussia Dortmund at just 21 years of age.Time is very much on the American’s side when it comes to following in Hazard’s footsteps, with a flurry of goals since the Premier League restart suggesting that he is ready to become a talisman.

Frank Lampard has, however, been reluctant to start comparing Pulisic and Hazard, with piling such pressure on a player who still has much to learn considered to be both premature and unnecessary.Burley is another of that mindset, with the former Chelsea midfielder eager to point out that there is a long way to go before a star of the present can claim to have emulated one of the recent past.He told ESPN FC of the Pulisic praise: “They should take their heads out of the sand.”Eden Hazard carried Chelsea for a long time, and got his move to Real Madrid.”He’s a multiple league winner, and a hugely talented Belgian international. In the end, he was coveted by arguably the biggest club in the world – Real Madrid.”It’s typical of the rationale – trying to compare people too early. Christian Pulisic is a huge talent, but he’s a young man.”There’s no guarantee that come next season with all the new players coming in that he’ll get all the game time he needs.”All he needs is two or three quiet games, and any manager worth his salt will have [Callum] Hudson-Odoi in, or he’ll have [Timo] Werner on the left, or Mason Mount.”I think we need to go slowly with Christian Pulisic, it’s a learning curve for him, he’s doing great at the moment, but you can’t compare him to a player who literally carried one of the biggest teams in the Premier League for a few seasons.”Hazard took in 352 appearances for Chelsea over the course of a seven-year stay, with 110 goals and 92 assists recorded while helping the Blues to two Premier League titles and a couple of Europa League crowns.Pulisic has nine goals and eight assists to his name this season, with it still possible for him to end his debut campaign in England with an FA Cup winners’ medal.


USMNT’s Sergino Dest: I want to play with Ronaldo, Messi


Fox Sports’ Milan van Dongen breaks down the link between Bayern and Sergino Dest. (1:22)

  • ESPN

Ajax and U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) defender Sergino Dest has said he wants to be the most expensive full-back in the world and play with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Dest has been linked with a big-money move away from Ajax this summer with several top European clubs, including Bayern MunichBarcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, said to be interested in him.

“I want to be the most expensive full-back ever because when you reach that it shows that you are one of the best full-back of the world,” Dest told NOS Jeugdjournaal.”I want to go over €50 million. No defender went above €100m”I want to play with [Kylian] Mbappe, Ronaldo, Messi or Neymar. Time will tell if it will come true. But it is possible.”Bayern Munich are reportedly leading the charge to sign the 19-year-old but Dest has yet to commit to leaving Ajax.However, the young defender is a self-confessed Barcelona fan and many believe should the Catalonian club make an offer Dest would be swayed there over the Bundesliga giants.”There are a lot of rumours. No, it has not been decided that I go to Bayern Munich and I haven’t really said anything yet. There is interest from clubs but I don’t know if I leave Ajax,” he said.Dest, who was born in the Netherlands, pledged his allegiance to the USMNT at the end of 2019 after securing his first senior caps in September of that year.”I chose the U.S. because I’ve played there in the youth teams,” Dest said of his decision. “It is my choice, everybody can have his opinion but [this] is my decision. I am the one who is in trouble when it doesn’t work out.”


United States’ Weston McKennie open to Schalke exit – sources

Stephan UersfeldGermany correspondent

United States international Weston McKennie is open to leaving Bundesliga side Schalke 04, sources told ESPN.

McKennie, 21, was one of the few Schalke players to not see his stock drop following a run of 16 Bundesliga games without a win this season.No longer 100% happy at Schalke, the versatile McKennie — who is one of the club’s biggest assets — would be in favour of leaving if the Royal Blues wish to sell him and his new club proves a good fit, sources say.A report by German outlet Sport1 has already linked McKennie, who could command a fee between €20-€25 million, with Hertha Berlin and fellow Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg also a possible option.”A departure can not be ruled out,” Schalke sporting executive Jochen Schneider said on Wednesday. “I can’t say it 100% right now. It’s a fact that Weston prolonged his contract through to 2024 last year.”This season, McKennie has been asked to play in several different positions — central attacking midfielder, holding midfielder and centre-back.The change of positions has been a common theme throughout his first few years as a professional. In 91 competitive appearances since his May 2017 debut, McKennie has played in eight different spots on the pitch. A pressing force and strong in the air, McKennie’s build-up play, however, proved to be one of his weakness when dropping deep behind the central defence. He now fancies himself as a No. 8 on the pitch going forward.Schalke on Wednesday announced they must reduce costs amid financial difficulties which were worsened by two factors in recent months. The club missed out on European football for the third time in four years this campaign and they were also hit hard by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the club announced they ran up almost €200m in debt and the pandemic left them battling to remaining existence in April.Current Hertha Berlin coach Bruno Labbadia was reportedly interested in signing McKennie when he was in charge of Wolfsburg. And Hertha this week received another €150m cash injection from investor Lars Windhorst, who wants to turn the mid-table side into a permanent participant in the Champions League. And the club have an opening in midfield after Marko Grujic returned to Liverpool following his two-year loan at Hertha.

How Jesse Marsch became the most successful American coach in Europe

Jul 9, 2020Tom HamiltonSenior Writer

The young Jesse Marsch never dreamed of coaching a team in the Champions League. It was an outlandish, unrealistic thought. But now that he is a little older, Google “FC Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch,” and it comes with various qualifiers. Depending on what you read, he’s the “first American to coach a team in the Champions League” or, perhaps, “the first American manager to win a European trophy,” as he just did in Austria: His Salzburg side clinched their seventh straight Austrian Bundesliga title on June 28, a title to add to the Austrian Cup they won May 20 with a 5-0 thumping of SC Austria Lustenau. (He was named the league’s Manager of the Year after the season ended last weekend.)

It’s like a boxer. You can imagine hearing the big, booming introduction over the stadium speakers. All the way from Wisconsin, your double-winning champion manager of Salzburg … Jesse Marsch!Tell the young Marsch this, and he would’ve laughed at you. An American coach in Europe? Never. “They don’t take us seriously,” he grew up thinking.Back then, his dreams stopped at one day being able to live in Europe and watch the Champions League at night, as was intended. That was enough. Now, as a highly regarded manager in Europe with Austrian champions FC Salzburg, Marsch remembers those teenage hopes. Aged 15, he was on tour with an American regional side at a youth tournament in the U.K., and they were taken to Anfield to watch Liverpool. After watching John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, he went down to the pitch, and scooped up some of the Anfield turf as a keepsake, just in case he never got the opportunity to go there again.Late one evening in October at Anfield, 31 years on, Marsch was trying to inspire a Salzburg comeback, with his club 3-1 down to Liverpool at half-time in their Champions League group stage match. There were cameras in the changing room for a documentary the club is working on. The clip, which went viral when shared on social media, had us all watching as Marsch addressed his players passionately in a goulash of German, English, expletives and footballing terminology.”You can’t get emotional all the time … but you can be real,” Marsch told ESPN, remembering that team talk. “That’s a big part of leadership is inspiration but also understanding solutions and how to drive communication home.” Salzburg went on to level the match 3-3 and eventually lost 4-3, earning praise for the manner in which they went down swinging. (One of Marsch’s players that night, Takumi Minamino, ended up joining Liverpool when the January transfer window opened.)Marsch, 46, is tired of talking about that glimpse now. After all, he’s far more than a flash in the pan. That two-minute video embodied everything Marsch is about: He’s compelling, he shows vulnerability of his interspersing language, he is packed with passion, and he has unwavering trust in the system to be fearless and attack. That’s the philosophy he lives by, and it has seen him guide Salzburg, whom he joined ahead of the 2019-20 season, to even more domestic success. Job done.He is accustomed to proving doubters wrong, feeling that there’s a “stigma” around American football coaches, but as a trailblazer, he’s changing that to the extent that no one does a double take when they hear about the former midfielder from Racine, Wisconsin, who won a pair of USMNT caps against Trinidad and Tobago and China, being linked with the best jobs in European football.

Marsch won the Austrian league and cup double in his first season coaching FC Salzburg. David Geieregger/SEPA.Media /Getty Images

After starting his managerial career at Montreal Impact and then, after a brief hiatus, as a college coach at Princeton, Marsch took charge of the New York Red Bulls in 2015. He was highly regarded and improved the franchise immeasurably. But halfway through the 2018 season, with New York in a title chase and with the best win ratio in the team’s history, he left to take a role as Ralf Rangnick’s assistant at Leipzig.Rangnick, an extremely highly regarded German coach, has had a huge influence on Marsch’s life. The current head of sport and development at Red Bull GmbH has been heavily linked with a role at AC Milan, but he started the trend of gegenpressing in German football. Other Rangnick disciples include Julian Nagelsmann at Leipzig, Adi Hütter at Frankfurt, Marsch’s predecessor, Marco Rose, who is now at Borussia Monchengladbach, and Oliver Glasner at Wolfsburg.

When Marsch first spoke to Rangnick, it was like a fire had been lit inside him.”In terms of my tactical philosophies, I’ve gathered so much from Ralf,” Marsch said. “When we first met when I was at New York, when he started talking about football ideas, concepts and details he has, it really sparked my imagination. I like to play fast football but I learned so much more from him on how to prepare your team on how you can achieve that tempo at every moment in the game.”After a season at Leipzig, Marsch was appointed Salzburg manager last summer. Although Salzburg are now split from the Red Bull footballing arm because of UEFA rules, Marsch has that Rangnick/Red Bull DNA synthesis running through his veins. They play, in Marsch’s words, “a very strong version of Red Bull football” — attacking, high press, gegenpressing, challenging the opponent every second — and while he’s an unapologetic champion for this style, it comes with self-awareness.

“I don’t want to come across like I have it all figured out, though … [or like] that offense is the only way to do it,” he said. “That’s [the] way I like to do it. It’s the way I’ve found can breed success.”This goes back to that half-time team talk at Anfield, as he reminded his players of the Salzburg way. But systems are all well and good; you still need to add meat to the bones.Although Marsch was attuned to Rangnick’s footballing philosophy, he sees the game as 25% tactical and 75% mental, with good communication essential. Former USMNT coach Bob Bradley has long been one of Marsch’s mentors, but as Marsch embarked on his own trip to Europe at Leipzig, he remembered how Bradley struggled for acceptance at Swansea City.”Bob inspired me. I think one of the big reasons I even thought about the possibility of moving to Europe was because Bob tried it. I have the utmost respect for him,” Marsch said. “But I watched the way the media treated him [at Swansea], and I felt in some ways, it’s easier to go to somewhere that speaks a different language because they’re almost more forgiving when you make mistakes.”I understand the stigma involved with being an American coach in England, right? Like, they don’t take [it] seriously. That’s OK. We have to earn the right. My approach has always been holistic: to try to adapt [to a new club] but also be myself and make sure the team is a representation of things I believe in.

“Speaking German is a big part of that. I tell them [the players] I don’t speak German with them because I think I’m good at it. … I make mistakes in every sentence. German’s a brutal language, too. It’s brutal. But I’ve gotten much better. It’s really helped me understand the people within the communities I’ve worked on in both Germany and Austria. I’ll say that it’s been really anstrengend — the word for difficult, time-consuming, stressful — but it’s also been incredibly rewarding.”Marsch is fascinated by character and motivation, as well as the role language plays in coaching. In his office, he has a folder filled with a number of phrases and examples of motivational techniques taken from history, sport and literature. He also showed his players the documentary “The Last Dance,” and though they were too young to remember Michael Jordan in his prime, he wanted them to learn from his relentless push for success.The folder came out when Marsch sat with his captain, Andy Ulmer. He has 17 major titles to his name. Where do you go after you win your eighth title on the bounce at Salzburg? Well, for Ulmer, Marsch developed a narrative around his captain that he wanted him to feel like Austria’s version of Muhammad Ali.”At [New York Red Bulls], I used to talk about Ali. He used to talk a lot in the media, and he later said he did that because he was trying to convince himself he was a champion,” Marsch said. “So I used Ali and Ulmer. I even asked him about [how] he keeps himself successful. He spoke about his preparation and drive, and we created terminology around Andy being the greatest Austrian player to ever play. It’s about trying to uncover little clues to understand how and why players play.”His own player-facing growth narrative is about stretching his limitations. “Going out of your comfort zone and being vulnerable: Those are the only ways to grow,” Marsch said. “It’s the only way to get better: making mistakes, learning from mistakes. If I’m going to talk about that, then I certainly have to be the best example of it.”

His method works. Tyler Adams, the USMNT and Leipzig midfielder, worked under Marsch at New York. He is the archetypal Marsch player: Adams can play almost anywhere on the field, understands the philosophy from all sides and has a thirst for learning. When asked by ESPN how influential Marsch had been for him, Adams was effusive.

“Unbelievably… developing me as a player is one thing, but as a person, a lot of the quality traits I hold and how I felt I could develop as quickly as I could, a lot of it is down to how I could mature under Jesse,” Adams said. “He had these leadership qualities, could pull people aside and communicate. I want to be the best leader I can be — a lot of that came from Jesse. It doesn’t matter who you are. He treats you the same.”For Marsch, life experiences have helped mould his coaching philosophy and range of influences. He looks back to the time when he left his first managerial post at Montreal Impact in 2012. Instead of immediately hopping into another job, he took his family travelling. He, his wife and their three children (then aged 5, 9 and 11) went to 32 countries in six months and stayed in hostels, motels and on floors, rather than hopping from hotel to hotel. He met different people and embraced local culture, and it ignited a curiosity inside him.”It was about understanding humanity … that’s football as well. If you don’t understand multiculturalism or what it’s like for people to grow up in parts of Africa or South America or wherever, then how can you effectively lead a group and understand how to make them better?”This spell formed part of his itch to see what lay beyond the familiar four walls of MLS, and his career has shown that, as he has gone from New York to Leipzig to Salzburg.But what doesn’t help your push for relentless success or your reputation for growing talent is when you lose your best players every year. It is an annual challenge for Salzburg.

FC Salzburg’s alumni roster reads like a list of footballing who’s-who. Premier League-winning Liverpool duo Sadio Mane (2012-14) and Naby Keita (2014-16) played there. Minamino, who played in that 4-3 defeat at Anfield, joined them at Liverpool in January. Then there’s Erling Haaland, the prolific Norwegian striker who is scoring for fun in the Bundesliga for Borussia DortmundKevin Kampl, Peter Gulasci and Dayot Upamecano all went from Salzburg to Leipzig, too. It’s a well-trodden path; though the clubs are officially separate, they have an unofficial sister club relationship where Leipzig are traditionally the bigger side and scoop up some of the Austrian team’s best players.

Losing that number of brilliant players might seem careless, but it’s inevitable for a club such as Salzburg. Although they’re dominant in their own division, the money generated from the Austrian Bundesliga and stature of the competition isn’t in the same league as that of the German Bundesliga, Premier League, Serie A or La Liga. To survive and thrive, both domestically and on the balance sheet, Salzburg have to develop from within.The thing Marsch has always enjoyed most is coaching younger, promising players, and that marries with Salzburg’s philosophy.”We have a clear identity. It’s about the academy and finding those young, 15- or 16-year-olds and helping them understand the way we play. It’s a specific style, and they then grow as they adjust to the speed and the intensity.”Salzburg suffered a midseason slump when they lost Haaland and Minamino, going on a five-game winless run. But they found a way to readjust, and since the Bundesliga restarted amid the coronavirus pandemic, they have won seven and drawn two in the league, securing the title with two games to spare.”You have to be excited for those players when they get opportunities and move on, even though it means sometimes, in the short-term period, you suffer,” Marsch said. “But we used it [Haaland and Minamino leaving] to get better, to get stronger and to develop more, and by doing that, I think we set ourselves up for the success we have now. The goal here is always to try to find the right next young players to invest in our project and help them take their next steps.”Supporters don’t like it when they leave, but at the same time, we’ve had a great run in the Champions League, won eight titles in a row, so the success of the club’s not suffering. It’s thriving. The challenge here is making sure we aren’t not champions.”Not long after we talked, one of the club’s latest prospects, 24-year-old South Korean forward Hwang Hee-Chan, was being linked with a move to RB Leipzig. Salzburg are also braced for interest in others, such as young Hungarian midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai (AC Milan and Arsenal were said to be leading the race for his signature) and the Zambian duo of striker Patson Daka and midfielder Enock Mwepu, both of whom have been linked with moves to the Premier League.”I had this feeling with Haaland that we had the real chance to do something special with him. I have that with Dominik and the other guys. They’re not finished products, but they have the building blocks, and you can start to picture their development path, what they can look like in a month, six months, in one year or two years. It’s clear there are plenty of suitors for them.”On one level, you can always make an argument it’s better for them to [have] a little bit more time in a safe environment, but on another level, if the right opportunity comes, the last thing you want to do is deprive them of going somewhere that could be life-changing. We’ll see how things progress.”It comes back to that old maxim of controlling the controllables, and for Marsch, success is judged not only by silverware but also by whether he gets to the stage in managing his team where he has made himself redundant.”That’s a core principle of my philosophy,” Marsch told ESPN. It is anchored on players and staff taking ownership of their respective roles, leaving him to serve as the conductor. “I tell them what we’re doing in training, I set up the fields, and then before the game, I give them the tactical plan.”But then I want to be able to sit on the bench and just watch them play.”Marsch has come a long way from those days in Wisconsin daydreaming of watching the Champions League. He’s now coaching Europe’s best talent and against football’s brightest minds. He’s aware that other budding American managers will look to him as the example, and he might have the answers as to how they can succeed as pioneers in European football, but he’s wary of rushing.”People may now perceive me a little differently, and maybe the things I say matter a little more than they used to, but I like to think I’m the same when it comes to what I believe in,” Marsch said. “I’ve grown as a person and as a coach, but at the core, I’m still the same person, you know, as I was growing up in Wisconsin, just trying to do the best job I can do.”Sometimes when I talk to young coaches, and they ask me, you know, what’s the key to being a good manager, and for me, it’s don’t become a coach because you think you love the game and you want to tactically try to implement a plan. Be a coach if you want to be a leader. The football part is sort of the side effect or the first step. But then all the other things what matter are how you talk to and challenge a group, how you communicate with each other, how you treat each other, how you believe in each other, what kind of relationships you have. Those are the things that really, I think, define what a team is.”Marsch is happy at Salzburg and hopes for a long stay, but he is aware of his name being bounced around when other vacancies arise. He has been linked with Borussia Dortmund this season, with the Bundesliga giants still looking for a way to overhaul Bayern Munich, but gives these rumours short shrift.”I believe my secret to life is focusing on the moment,” he said.When asked if this is standard managerial speak, he added: “Look, it’s not B.S. I love being the manager of this club. It’s amazing — the people, the country, everything. I realise I won’t be here forever — good or bad! But the more I can focus on the moment, the better.”This season has brought the Austrian double, and the expectation will be to repeat next season and upset Europe’s established order in next year’s Champions League. (Salzburg will begin in the Champions Path of the playoff round, with a two-legged fixture between them and the group stage.) Marsch can’t wait to get going, seeing what young talent comes through the ranks and who will emerge from Haaland and Minamino’s shadow.One day, when he has finished his European adventure, he’ll return home to Wisconsin. There, alongside his medals, will lie a small part of Anfield’s turf. “I remember I put it in my pocket and have that in a plastic bag back home,” he said. “At the core, I’m still a football fan, you know? I’m living the dream.”Marsch’s journey into Europe and his success have now enabled others to stretch the limits of their hopes and expectations.

NWSL Challenge Cup standouts move on to quarterfinals

9:22 AM ETGraham HaysESPN.com

  • FacebookThe NWSL Challenge Cup offers the best women’s soccer being played anywhere in the world at the moment. And the competition, played behind closed doors in the Salt Lake City area as the coronavirus pandemicmade it impossible to play the eighth season as scheduled, is about to get even better as it moves to the knockout rounds.Granted, the preliminary round admittedly lacked drama. All eight teams were assured of quarterfinal progress and the games didn’t even do a particularly good job of settling seeding — the round concluding with a four-way tie for fourth place. All we really know as the quarterfinals begin Friday in the bubble at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, is that after winning all four of its games and allowing one goal, two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage remains the heavy favorite. We knew that going in.

But that same parity among the teams chasing North Carolina means there are no unappealing quarterfinals. And with four games to warm up, the quality of play should be compelling.To set up the games ahead of this weekend, let’s look at one player from each team — some familiar and some new — who used the preliminary round to make a favorable impression.

No. 1 North Carolina (4-0-0) vs. No. 8 Portland (0-1-3), Friday, 12:30 ET

Addisyn Merrick, North Carolina: The champions looked the part during a preliminary round. Coach Paul Riley leaned heavily on his most trusted names. With Merritt Mathias still coming back from a torn ACL and Heather O’Reilly retired, there was no familiar name available at right back. Enter Merrick, a fourth-round pick who Riley, the famously diehard Liverpool fan, is hoping will be his version of Andy Robertson or Trent Alexander-Arnold. The former Big 12 Defender of the Year has license to push forward just like Liverpool’s outside backs whose development from raw prospects into global stars was widely acclaimed as instrumental in making that team champions of England and Europe in a modern game that prizes fullbacks able to contribute offensively. While more passes and crosses still come from Jaelene Daniels on the left side, Merrick hasn’t been shy in either regard through her first three starts for a team that is constantly attacking.

Bella Bixby, Portland: The keeper made her first career start in the opener against mighty North Carolina. She lost perhaps the best security blanket in the world when a hip injury sidelined Becky Sauerbrunn after that game. She hasn’t had Tobin Heath to help score some goals at the other end (or injured No. 1 overall pick Sophia Smith, for that matter). But for all of that, Bixby and the Thorns allowed just three goals in the preliminary round. The goalkeeper who sat and watched the past two seasons was more about solid saves than flustered moments. She’s tied for third in the tournament with 11 saves, but her presence is as impressive as the numbers. No one is dislodging Adrianna Franch when the No. 1 keeper is healthy, but whether an insurance policy in Portland or perhaps an opening with expansion Louisville, Bixby is earning her place.

No. 2 Washington Spirit (2-1-1) vs. No. 7 Sky Blue FC (1-2-1), Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET

Ashley Sanchez, Washington: The last time someone from UCLA was the fourth overall pick in the NWSL draft, it worked out pretty well for Sam Mewis and the franchise that is now the North Carolina Courage. For that matter, the fourth pick worked out for Washington a year ago when it turned into Samantha Staab. But after watching Sanchez dazzle for the Bruins, it was still surprising to see her last even that long in this year’s draft. It is even more surprising after her first four pro appearances. Sure, she’s not a finished product. Some of the attempted moves didn’t come off. There aren’t a lot of numbers to point to through an initial 277-minute sample — she has one assist among Washington’s four goals (memorable as it was) and modest 58 percent passing accuracy — but the confidence to take risks, skill and creativity that made her a star at UCLA and earned her looks from the senior national team weren’t dulled a bit by the jump to the pros.

Sabrina Flores, Sky Blue: Without Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh because of injury, Sky Blue began the tournament as a case study in what was missing. But it would be difficult to single out a player who better illustrates the opportunity afforded than Flores. A short-term fill-in for Sky Blue last summer and her season with Sevilla in Spain then cut short by the coronavirus, Flores signed again with Sky Blue barely a week before the start of the tournament. She started the opener, played 273 minutes for the second stingiest defense in the preliminary round and earned player of the match honors against the Courage by putting a second-half shot just over the crossbar and helping keep all of North Carolina’s attacking options in check in a game in which Sky Blue finished with 58 percent of possession. They were the only team to have an edge on Courage in the round. That’s a dramatically different story than would have been written about the outside back without any kind of season this summer.

No. 3 OL Reign (1-1-2) vs. No. 6 Chicago Red Stars (1-2-1), Saturday, 10 p.m. ET

OL Reign defender Alana Cook, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, is making her case for USWNT consideration. Rob Gray/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Alana Cook, OL Reign: Put in a bad spot when Utah’s Amy Rodriguez punished a too-casual pass toward Cook around midfield, the OL Reign defender chased down one of the league’s all-time best finishers, timed her tackle perfectly and defused the problem early in her team’s eventual 1-0 win in the preliminary round in Herriman on July 8. And while it isn’t as if too many people doubted Cook’s ability to make such plays, it was still nice to see it unfold on this side of the Atlantic. A former Stanford standout who is making her NWSL debut on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, Cook only started two of Reign’s first four games. She’s far from alone in putting in quality minutes on a back line that has allowed just two goals, but every chance she gets in front of U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski, in attendance in Utah, should help her future.

Casey Short, Chicago: She scored the goal in the first-stage finale that kept Chicago from facing top-seeded North Carolina in a quarterfinal, which almost by definition makes it the most valuable goal of the preliminary round. But between that well-executed header late in the finale against Utah and the emotional scenes of Short in tears during the national anthem prior to the team’s opener, Short was a joy to watch. She’s almost always a joy to watch because of her ability to lock down her side of the field defensively while destabilizing an opposing defense with her own runs forward. It was no coincidence that when she struggled early in the opener after the emotional scenes beforehand, the Red Stars struggled right along with her. And in a tournament that was missing most of the defenders from the U.S. entry in Olympic qualifying earlier this year either through injury or virus-related withdrawal, Short keeps making a case to be a part of 2021.

No. 4 Houston Dash (1-2-1) vs. No. 5 Utah Royals (1-2-1), Friday, 10 p.m. ET

Royals FC defender Elizabeth Ball played every minute in Utah’s first three games and came on as an injury replacement in the first half of their regular-season finale. Rob Gray/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Elizabeth Ball, Utah: The defender logged the most minutes of anyone who didn’t start all four games in the preliminary round, playing every minute in Utah’s first three games and coming on as an injury replacement in the first half of the finale. The less heralded side of the offseason swap that sent Sauerbrunn to Portland, Ball was likely going to play a lot no matter what form this season took. So maybe she isn’t the quintessential Challenge Cup revelation. Still, in not only replacing Sauerbrunn (as best anyone can possibly do that) but adapting to first-year coach Craig Harrington’s three-back system, she has proved a rousing success.

Shea Groom, Houston: There might not have been a more entertaining player in the preliminary round, certainly through her team’s first two games. The midfielder scored a long-range wallop against Utah, then added an audacious assist and soaring header in a win against OL Reign. She pressured goalkeepers and jawed with Shirley Cruz. She was fun. Acquired from OL Reign, along with Megan Oyster, Groom meshed well with Rachel Daly, Kristie Mewis and a Dash team that finally earned a top-four finish. All right, it was only over four games and only thanks to the tiebreaker that sorted out the four teams with four points. But success starts somewhere.



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