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An NWSL Challenge: Can Anyone Dethrone the North Carolina Courage in Utah?


The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup begins this weekend on CBS, and the Courage’s traditional top competitors have plenty to overcome in order to lift the trophy. Expected goals indicate Lindsey Horan should be better this year than last and Chicago’s defense improved as 2019 wore on, but is that enough for Portland or Chicago?

By: Jeff Mangurten

There’s no wait for the National Women’s Soccer League powerhouses to make their debuts in Utah as the league returns to play Saturday. The first match of the month-long tournament features the two-time reigning champions North Carolina Courage against the 2017 winning Portland Thorns. Saturday night’s match features the Chicago Red Stars, last season’s runners up and a team that has made the playoffs in a league-record five straight seasons.

Here, we take an in-depth statistical look at why the Courage come into the NWSL tournament as favorites, and the challenges the Thorns and Red Stars will come up against as they try to lift this new trophy.


Over the last four seasons, the Courage (or their predecessors, the Flash), Thorns and Red Stars have occupied three of the four postseason slots in the NWSL, with the last three championship matches being played between two of those three teams.

Playoff berths since 2016:

4: Courage/Flash (3 titles), Thorns (1 title), Red Stars

2: OL Reign

1: Pride, Spirit

A look at the combined table over the last four seasons shows that only OL Reign have been able to stay close to the top three teams in the league.

Combined NWSL Table Over the Past Four Seasons

1North Carolina Courage/WNY Flash5716191858897187
2Portland Thorns4923201529854170
3Chicago Red Stars43242513610630153
4OL Reign38292512610422143
5Orlando Pride291845119151-32105

The top three teams have dominated the rest of the division, recording a combined record of 125 wins, 47 draws and just 40 losses against the other teams in the league since the beginning of the 2016 season, outscoring them 372-191 in those matches (+181).


The Courage enter the Challenge Cup as the odds-on favorites, and for good reason. North Carolina have finished top of the regular-season table in each of the last three seasons, going on to the Championship match every year, and lifting the trophy in 2018 and 2019.

North Carolina set an NWSL record with 54 goals during the 2019 regular season, scoring in all but one match. They found the net at least three times in eight regular-season matches, plus they scored four goals in each of their postseason victories.

The Courage attack was relentless, attempting 20.3 shots per match, over five more than any other team in the competition. Lynn Williams led the competition with 108 attempts, with Debinha third with 81 shots. Eight Courage players attempted at least 22 shots last season, more than any other team in the competition.

Their attack came from all angles and through team play, as 42 of their 54 regular-season goals were assisted, with 14 different players contributing at least one. Five of the eight players to record at least five assists in the NWSL last season were on the Courage, and all of them are on the roster for the Challenge Cup.

2019 NWSL Assists Leaders

Yuki NagasatoChicago Red Stars8
DebinhaNorth Carolina Courage7
Jaelene DanielsNorth Carolina Courage6
Verónica BoqueteUtah Royals6
Sam KerrChicago Red Stars5
Merritt MathiasNorth Carolina Courage5
Kristen HamiltonNorth Carolina Courage5
Lynn WilliamsNorth Carolina Courage5

Overall, 29 different combinations of Courage players linked up for goals during the 2019 season. No other NWSL team had more than 19 such combinations last season. Further, of the eight pairs of teammates with at least 15 chances created for each other last season, three of them were Courage teammates.

Sam Kerr & Yuki Nagasato (CHI) – 30

Debinha & Lynn Williams (NC) – 23

Lindsey Horan & Tobin Heath (POR) – 19

Rachel Daly & Sofia Huerta (HOU) – 18

Sam Kerr & Vanessa DiBernardo (CHI) – 21

Christine Sinclair & Tobin Heath (POR) – 17

Crystal Dunn & Lynn Williams (NC) – 17

Jessica McDonald & Lynn Williams (NC) – 19


The Thorns enter the Challenge Cup on the back of four consecutive NWSL postseason appearances but have fallen one step shorter each of the last three seasons. The 2017 champions returned to the final in 2018 where they fell to the Courage, and last season they were eliminated in the semi-final by the Red Stars.

To reverse the trend, the Thorns will look to rely on World Cup winner Lindsey Horan to return to form after a disappointing 2019 campaign. After a brilliant 2018 season that saw her lead the Thorns with 13 goals and a World Cup in which she scored twice and delivered two assists, including on the winning goal in the semi-final against England, Horan’s magic touch seemed to have left her.

In the 2018 season, Lindsey Horan scored 13 goals with an xG of just 8.9, outperforming her xG by 4.1, an NWSL best that season. Last season, the trend reversed, as she managed just one goal in 13 appearances, underperforming her xG (3.8) by 2.8, the fifth-worst in the competition last season.

Lindsey Horan Performance vs. xG

SeasonGames PlayedGoalsxGPerformance vs. xG

A look at her best chances over the last two seasons provides a stark contrast in her finishing. Taking her 15 best chances of the 2018 season by xG on individual shots (excluding penalties), Horan hit the target 11 times, scoring with nine of those shots.

Lindsey Horan Results from 15 Highest xG Shots

SeasonGoalsSavedOff TargetBocked

By comparison, in 2019, none of Horan’s 15 best chances led to a goal, as she only managed to hit the target three times on those attempts.  It’s worth noting the quality of those 15 best chances each season as well.  Horan’s 15 best chances in 2018 had a combined xG of 6.1, with six of those shots having an xG of over 0.5.  In 2019 however, Horan’s xG on her 15 best chances was just 2.4, with none of her shots having an xG of 0.5 or better.

The good news for Portland is that we tend to trust xG numbers over larger sample sizes, so her 13 matches from 2019 probably doesn’t tell a complete story. But with fellow national teamer Tobin Heath sitting the tournament out, the spotlight will be on Horan’s finishing and her teammates’ ability to set her up in high-percentage scoring positions.


The Red Stars face the most daunting task of the three as they head to Utah for the Challenge Cup, as they need to replace the goals scored by Sam Kerr, who led the league in scoring in both of her seasons with the Red Stars before departing for Chelsea. Her total of 34 goals over the 2018 and 2019 campaigns were eight more than any other player in that time.

Combined 2018 & 2019 NWSL Scoring Leaders

Sam Kerr34
Lynn Williams26
Christine Sinclair18
Crystal Dunn15
Rachel Daly15

Kerr was involved in a league-high 23 goals last season (18 goals, five assists), which accounted for 56.1% of all the goals the Red Stars scored last season (41). Kerr was the only player to be involved in 20 or more goals in any of the last four NWSL seasons, doing so three times.

2016-19 NWSL Goal Involvement Leaders

Sam KerrChicago Red Stars201918523
Sam KerrSky Blue201717421
Sam KerrChicago Red Stars201816420
MartaOrlando Pride201713619
Lynn WilliamsNorth Carolina Courage201814519

The Red Stars will likely lean heavily on veteran Yuki Nagasato to help fill the void left by Kerr after she recorded a career year last season, scoring eight goals and recording eight assists, becoming the first player to reach those numbers in a single NWSL season since the league’s inaugural 2013 campaign (Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 goals, nine assists and Abby Wambach (WNY) 11 goals, eight assists).

The problem is much of Nagasato’s success was linked to her partnership with Kerr. She created a league-high 54 chances during the 2019 season, though nearly half of those (26) set up shots by Sam Kerr. In addition, seven of her eight league-leading assists set up goals by Kerr.

In the three regular-season matches Kerr missed last season, the Red Stars were able to create plenty of opportunities, averaging 19.3 shots per match compared to the 14.1 per match they attempted in the 21 matches with Kerr, but there was no end product as the Red Stars failed to score in those three matches.

2019 Chicago Red Stars With vs. Without Sam Kerr

 GamesWDLGFAvg. GFShots/Game
With Kerr211425412.014.1
Without Kerr300300.019.3

With the loss of that much scoring power, the Red Stars will have to rely heavily on the defense that got them to the NWSL Championship game last season. They weren’t a very good defensive side earlier in the year, but Chicago allowed just two goals in their six matches leading up to the title game, keeping four clean sheets including in their semi-final win over the Thorns before conceding four goals to the Courage in the final.

The Red Stars late defensive improvement wasn’t just good fortune, either. Chicago had allowed an average of 1.65 xG per match until Sept. 1, but that dropped to 1.00 in their six-match run up to the title game. That means the two goals conceded in those six matches was more than luck or strong goalkeeping – they were also limiting the quality of opponent chances much better than they were earlier in the season.

While the Courage head into the NWSL Challenge Cup as favorites, and their two main challengers appear weakened from the past few years, anything can happen in a knockout format, especially without extra time in the later stages. The Courage have handled the pressure of being favorites before, winning the last two NWSL Championships as the top seed, and they’ll enter this competition as the team to beat again.