(CBS Local/CBSDFW.com)- We're down to the final three games.
After becoming the first professional sports league to return to the United States just about a month ago, the NWSL Challenge Cup has rolled along to the semifinals set for Wednesday afternoon and evening in Utah. At stake, a spot in the championship game on CBS on Sunday, July 26 at 1:30 p.m. EST.
For the Houston Dash and Portland Thorns FC it's been a difficult road to this point in varying ways. For the Dash, the team was not picked to be among the favorites to win the tournament with many new faces on the roster.
"There's still unfinished business. I don't think many people were anticipating that we'd be here. We want to stay here until Monday, that's the goal but we focus on Wednesday first," said head coach James Clarkson in media availability Tuesday. "This is why we play the game, why we participate in it. We want to play in big games and we want to win things. All the players are very competitive, they're very ambitious. This is a huge game, a huge opportunity for them. Hopefully it's one that they take."
Clarkson and his players are aware of the franchise's history when it comes to playoff participation. Through the first seven seasons of the franchise's existence, the Dash hasn't qualified for the league playoffs. Now, they find themselves just two games away from winning a title. A large part of that has been the play of goalkeeper Jane Campbell, who is third in the tournament in saves (14) and tied for second in clean sheets (2). That quality goalkeeping, Clarkson says, gives confidence to the rest of the team.
"It definitely helps having a good goalkeeper, just gives confidence around the whole team. Ideally, we'd like to score and win the game in regulation rather than go into PKs and relying on Jane," said Clarkson. "But, if that does happen, we know we have the best goalkeeper in the league, probably the best goalkeeper in the world in saving penalty kicks."
For Thorns FC, the team has been one of the most consistent contenders in the league since entering in 2013. They have made at least the semifinals in every season of their existence save 2015. They are two-time champions. But, this Challenge Cup has been tough with injuries to Adrianna Franch, Becky Sauerbrunn and Sophia Smith keeping those three out of the quarterfinals matchup with North Carolina Courage. Lindsay Horan and Emily Menges both played through injuries of their own as Thorns scraped out a 1-0 victory over the back-to-back champs.
It's that fighting spirit and the energy infusion from some of their young players that has allowed them to keep their hopes of hoisting the cup alive.
"We do have a lot of young players and I think especially for a tournament like this, having so many games, having a good bench to rely on and players that are excited to be here and excited to play has been great for us," said Menges in a call with media.
One of those young players, forward Morgan Weaver, had the lone goal to push Portland past North Carolina in the quarterfinals. That victory was Thorns FC's first of the tournament upsetting the favored and previously unbeaten Courage. Head coach Mark Parsons told reporters Tuesday that game, and the quarterfinals at large are a perfect encapsulation of the league in that anything goes.
"Looking at the four teams, what has this tournament showed you so far? What does the NWSL show you every year? Anything goes," said Parsons. "There is class and quality on every team. There is experience on every team and there is young, green excitement on every team. You look at the quarterfinals, the semis and what you learn is it's up for grabs and anyone can progress."
That unpredictable nature makes for an entertaining first matchup on Wednesday. The teams did not meet in the preliminary round, so there's no recent history to rely on. For the Dash, the hope is that they will find their scoring touch once more. After scoring five goals in their first two matches, they have tallied 0 regulation markers since. Goals are easier said than done against Portland however, which has allowed just three all tournament and shut out its opponent in its last two games.
The semifinal action can be found on CBS All Access, Wednesday July 22 at 12:30 p.m. EST.
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