Thorns, NWSL hope for positive return
Barring a late change, the Portland Thorns will play in the first team sports contest to take place since COVID-19 brought all competition to a halt in March.
At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, June 27, the Thorns and the North Carolina Courage are scheduled to clash in the first game of the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup, which is taking place in the Salt Lake City area.
The tournament's schedule needs to be redone because the Orlando Pride announced Monday they will not play because six players and four staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. All 10 were asymptomatic, according to a press release from the Orlando club.
The Thorns Saturday match is scheduled to be televised by CBS (KOIN, Channel 6), the first NWSL match to be shown on network television. CBS also will carry the tournament final on July 26. Every tournament game will be live on the paid streaming service CBS All Access ($5.99 per month) and shown on a delayed basis on the CBS Sports Network.
Here's the revamped schedule for the Thorns: Saturday, June 27 vs. North Carolina, 930 a.m. (CBS/KOIN 6); Wednesday, July 1 vs. Chicago, 9:30 a.m. (CBS ALL ACCESS); Sunday, July 5 vs. Washington, 7 p.m. (CBS ALL ACCESS); Monday, July 13, vs. OL Reign, 9:30 a.m.
Thorns at a glance
Who's new: Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, defender Christen Westphal, rookie forwards Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver.
Who's gone: Defender Emily Sonnett, defender Ellie Carpenter, defender Elizabeth Ball, midfielder Dagny Bjornsdottir, midfielder Andressinha, forward Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, forward Caitlin Foord, forward Hayley Raso, forward Midge Purce.
Tournament roster: Portland forward Tobin Heath is the only Thorns player who chose not play in the tournament, citing concerns over COVID-19. The U.S. Soccer Federation, which pays the salary for U.S. Women's National Team players in the NWSL, gave its players the option of skipping the NWSL Challenge Cup without losing pay.
Here is the Thorns roster for the tournament: Goalkeepers: Bella Bixby, Britt Eckerstrom, Adrianna Franch. Defenders: Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Katherine Reynolds, Becky Sauerbrunn, Autumn Smithers, Christen Westphal. Midfielders: Celeste Boureille, Lindsey Horan, Emily Ogle, Rocky Rodríguez, Angela Salem, Gabby Seiler. Forwards: Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Anika Rodriguez, Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver.
Outlook: The Thorns are a work in progress and storylines abound.
Who will emerge among Portland's young group of attackers? Rookies Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver bring big expectations, but Simone Charlie, Tyler Lussi and former Oregon Duck Marissa Everett will get a shot, too.
How will the addition of Sauerbrunn, one of the top defenders in the history of women's soccer, impact the Thorns back line and overall toughness?
How will the skill and vision of midfielder Rodriguez mesh with the likes of Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan?
Can versatile Gabby Seiler regain the promising form she showed before her knee injury? What roles will Angela Salem and Madison Pogarch play after recovering from injuries?
• Will the tournament help the league's footprint? As the first league to play, the NWSL has a chance perhaps to grab some new fans. On the other hand, most of the games are on a paid streaming service, which will appeal only to hardcore fans.
• How many "big names" won't play? In addition to Heath former Portland Pilot Megan Rapinoe of OL Reign is not participating. Utah Royals forward Christen Press declined to participate. Sky Blue FC forward Carli Lloyd also will not play.
• Can anyone beat North Carolina? The Courage are the standard bearers for the league. They have won two consecutive titles, in dominant form, and three of the last four dating to 2016 when the franchise was the New York Flash. The Challenge Cup format is different, and each team's depth will be tested. But North Carolina's cohesiveness and confidence gives the Courage a real chance to remain atop the league.
• Who will replace Sam Kerr as the league's top player? Kerr's 77 career NWSL goals is 27 more than the second player on the list. The Australian forward, who has led the league in scoring three consecutive years and is a two-time MVP, left the Chicago Red Stars to play in England with Chelsea.
• Will the tournament survive COVID-19? Last week, the NWSL announced that an unnamed player tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, Orlando announced that six players and four coaches had tested positive, causing the club to withdraw from the tournament.
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