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Dash battle Red Stars for Challenge Cup title: 3 things to watch

The Dash look to complete their remarkable turnaround and win the Challenge Cup championship.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Portland Thorns vs Houston Dash Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Dash will walk out at Rio Tinto stadium this morning to compete in the inaugural NWSL Challenge Cup final. No, you’re not still dreaming. This is real.

It has been a quite incredible 29 day tournament. The NWSL became the first major American sports league to return to action after the COVID-19 pandemic and they have done so without a single positive test in their Utah bubble. The sexism of the sporting world will not be solved in a month, but the NWSL - with the WNBA hot on its heel - have made huge gains in the road towards equality.

Creating a future for women to get an equal chance to be sporting greats is not a request. It is a demand. An invoice yet to be fulfilled. Whether you are in Houston or Honolulu you should be switching on CBS to watch the Dash take on the Red Stars. Of course it goes beyond the NWSL and this nationally broadcast final. This is the result of the legacy of figures such as Billie Jean King and the Williams Sisters. Invest in women. It is that simple.

Nothing, even defeat, will stop this Dash team from becoming legends in the eyes of the Dash faithful. Whether this is a brief spark or the beginning of a new era of triumph for the Texas team, we’ll never forget those who did it first. Those who quashed the cliches that this was a team allergic to success. From lovable losers to now fearsome finalists. The Houston Dash will leave Utah with a reputation changed.

Rachel Daly was fittingly announced last night as the Challenge Cup MVP. An honor she dedicated to her teammates, coaches and the city of Houston. Whilst Daly was deserving of the individual accolade, it will fade into irrelevance unless it is paired with glory in the final.

The Dash came to Utah to win and so far they have lived up to their word. It is poignant that a team who has played with such a huge chip on their shoulder should face off against another side looking to rewrite the past. Whilst Chicago Red Stars have made the NWSL playoffs every year since 2015, they were heavily beaten 4-0 in their first final, last year’s NWSL Championship final. They’re back where they want to be with a score to settle.

The stage is set for a new champion.

NWSL Challenge Cup Final: Houston Dash vs Chicago Red Stars 11:30 AM CT

Live on CBS, streaming on CBS All Access USA/Canada; streaming on Twitch worldwide

Here’s what to watch for:

Revenge game

All’s fair in love and soccer. There is one player who needs no introduction on the Red Stars roster: Kealia Watt (née Ohai). The first ever player drafted by the Houston Dash, was traded to the Red Stars in January 2020. The narrative is palpable. Watt is the all time leading scorer in the history of the Dash, with 28 goals, but she could yet see her record toppled in the final on Sunday. Daly is lurking just one goal behind her former teammate in the all-time Dash scoring standings. The final is a homecoming of sorts for Watt, Rio Tinto stadium being just 20 minutes from where Watt grew up and played high school soccer. The Red Stars forward is still looking for her first goal in Chicago colors. Could she break her duck against the city she called home for six seasons?

The departure of Watt was in exchange for the mighty Katie Naughton plus the 18th pick in the 2020 NWSL draft. This is the second NWSL final in successive years for Naughton, who started in the Red Stars’ ill fated climax against the Courage last year. The Dash defender has played every second of the Challenge Cup for Houston and will be motivated to shine against her old teammates and coaches. This is the trade that just keeps giving.

Aerial threat

Legs and minds are becoming tired. Fatigue has set in. Set pieces are becoming more and more crucial in breaking the deadlock in these closely fought elimination games. Daly has two goals from corners, both scored with her head, and half of the Dash’s goals have come in the air. The dominant Red Stars and USWNT keeper, Alyssa Naeher, correlate this trend with 50% of the goals she has conceded coming from headed set pieces. This is a rare weakness for such an imposing side.

The Chicago defense is a well regimented collection of stars and young talents. However, injuries have taken their toll. Julie Ertz is potentially the best player in the world at her position but as replacements slip in at left back and center back, there’s a disruption to the Red Stars’ marking that can be exploited. Chicago looked their most porous against Sky Blue, allowing runners to get in out wide and whip the ball in. Even with Daly’s relentless nous for winning the second ball, the Dash’s delivery from wide areas will need to be much improved for the goals to come.

Beware Bianca

Bianca St. Georges missed her entire rookie season with a knee injury but has wasted no time in taking the NWSL by storm in her second year with the Red Stars. The right back was involved in all three of Chicago’s goals in their 3-2 semi-final win over Sky Blue; scoring the first, playing the key pass for the second, and assisting the third. There’s a compact nature to the way St. Georges plays. At points it almost appears as if she has unfairly been equipped with a tractor beam to help intercept opponents or that she has corrupted the magnetic fields around her to keep control of the ball. Her tidy first touch and head-on dribbling style makes her headache for opposing wide players. Defenders look perturbed at her very existence in their box and then embarrassed when her skillful touch has undone them. Having played only 389 minutes, compared to Naughton’s 604 and Daly’s 581, she is relatively fresh in an ailing Red Stars squad. Can Nichelle’s Prince presence help pin her back or will she be once again be playing with the handbrake off?

Challenge chalice?

One question has been answered. The winner of the Challenge Cup will not be lifting the NWSL trophy. Thanks to a new advert that surfaced yesterday, featuring Alex Morgan on the voice over, the cup has been unveiled ahead of Sunday’s final. The reveal does not clear up whether the Challenge Cup will be viewed as a league title in NWSL lore moving forward. I assume it will not be considered a title but instead a trophy win of a different ilk. Will this glass vase-come-chalice become a staple of future NWSL seasons? The jury is out.

It will not matter one bit to either the victor come Sunday night. A sip of champagne at the final whistle, from that pristine vessel, will taste just as sweet.