Julie Ertz, Crystal Dunn, Sophia Smith: Five players to watch in this year’s NWSL Challenge Cup

Dunn and Ertz

The National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup kicks off tomorrow as the Houston Dash aim to retain their crown from last year.

Two new teams are competing for the first time; Racing Louisville and Kansas City, with the competition now split into an East and West division, each comprising five teams.

This will be the second iteration of the tournament, which finishes one week before the start of the regular domestic season.

Here are five of the most exciting players to watch this year:

Julie Ertz

Ertz is considered one of the finest players in the world and remains a key member of the US National side, boasting over 100 appearances to date.

The 29-year-old came agonisingly close to steering the Chicago Red Stars to a NWSL title in 2019, and the team narrowly lost out in the Challenge Cup final last year as well.

A versatile player, who spent her early career as a centre-back, Ertz is arguably the best defensive midfielder in the game and will hope to go one step better than in the previous campaign.

Ertz

Marta

The Brazilian legend has been vital for the Orlando Pride in recent seasons and continues to be one of the most feared forwards in the game, despite being 35 years of age.

The six-time FIFA World Player of the Year has yet to win anything with the Pride, but perhaps this year could be their year.

Fullback Ali Riley returns to the team, and several other interesting trades suggest that Orlando are not to be underestimated.

Marta

Yuki Nagasato

Nagasato is famous for being the first female footballer to play for a Japanese men’s club, but the striker has been even more influential in the women’s game.

With 58 goals in 132 games for her National team, Nagasato also enjoyed a successful spell at Chicago Red Stars for three seasons.

This year, the veteran forward joins the newly established Racing Louisville and will likely lead the line up top. The team are somewhat of a question mark at present, but one thing that can’t be doubted is Nagasato’s proven quality in front of goal.


Crystal Dunn

Dunn has left the North Carolina Courage to join the Portland Thorns, who undoubtedly have one of the most impressive rosters in the competition.

A team that boasts the likes of Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair is always likely to be feared but the addition of Dunn makes them even stronger.

Capable of playing in defence, midfield and attack, Dunn scored 17 goals for the Courage in just 39 games and is arguably one of the best players in the world at present.

Dunn

Sophia Smith

If the signing of Dunn wasn’t enough, the Thorns also picked up number one draft pick Sophia Smith.

The 20-year-old helped Stanford win the national title in 2019 and was called up to the US National squad aged just 16.

Having scored 24 goals in 33 games for the Stanford Cardinals, a partnership of Smith and Dunn could be unstoppable this season.

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