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Unlikely NWSL season will have an unlikely Challenge Cup champion

NWSL Challenge Cup semifinalist Sky Blue have come a long way since their one-win season in 2018. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Portland Thorns FC and Sky Blue FC will breathe easier these days. Not because players are more accustomed to the altitude in the Salt Lake City area. Not because they will play all remaining games in the NWSL Challenge Cup on the Rio Tinto Stadium grass after five games on artificial turf. And not because the forecast offers any relief from the heat (it doesn't).

It's mostly because that in proving themselves one of the best teams in the history of the sport, the North Carolina Courage suck the oxygen out of any room, or stadium, they occupy.

But after Portland eliminated the top-seeded and previously unbeaten Courage in a quarterfinal, the NWSL will, for the first time since 2015, settle a championship without the team that won three championships and three NWSL Shields beginning in 2016, including its time in Western New York.

A league now in the midst of the unlikeliest of seasons will have an unlikely champion.

The mental toll of life in the NWSL Challenge Cup bubble
Thorns FC's Horan provides a glimpse inside the bubble
Sky Blue FC, Chicago Red Stars both advance to NWSL semis on penalties

That's a good story especially in the cases of Houston and Sky Blue, franchises that began this year with no playoff appearances and 56 more losses than wins between them since Houston entered the league in 2014. It's also an important story. A league in which bad franchises stay bad is a league that stagnates. A league in which they aspire to championships, even if only in a monthlong tournament necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, is a league that can thrive.

Houston has no playoff appearances in its history but has more often been mediocre than disastrous. Sky Blue, on the other hand, is only a couple of years removed from exploring the full depths of disaster. Amid a one-win season in 2018 came reports detailing inadequate facilities, poor housing and general dysfunction. The team at least adjacent to the biggest market in the league ranked last in attendance. Sky Blue had the second and sixth picks in the 2019 draft. Both players opted to sign instead in Europe, the only first-rounders to do so.

So perhaps it's no surprise that people close to Alyse LaHue tried to talk her out of taking the job she now holds as the team's general manager. Many people. But she did all the same, first on an interim basis early last season and then permanently last fall. Play improved throughout last season -- not by miraculous degrees but steadily as a coaching carousel finally settled on Freya Coombe by the end of the campaign. With LaHue willing to listen to all complaints, at a full variety of volumes, from fans whose allegiance dated back to WPS a decade ago, the team's image improved. A pair of games at Red Bull Arena late in the year drew big crowds -- more than half as many in those games alone as the team drew the entire 2018 season.

Then came the offseason announcement that the team was finally trading its outdated and difficult-to-reach home at Rutgers for Red Bull Arena on a full-time basis. Suddenly, Sky Blue, which also traded for World Cup winner Mallory Pugh during the offseason, had a world-class facility far more easily accessible by public transportation.

"It opens up for us a lot of new business opportunities as well," LaHue said. "Really, Red Bull Arena was the next step for us in our growth as a professional club."

Except that is on hold after the sports world shut down before Sky Blue could make their full-time debut at Red Bull Arena.

"You basically have a new job now," LaHue recalled of the message to staff as the NWSL put its season on hold just as preseason training was commencing. "Whatever you did before, if you can figure out how to do it completely digital, that's what you're going to do now."

It says something about the shift from organizational dysfunction to, well, function that while there was plenty of outside debate about whether the NWSL could even survive a shutdown. Sky Blue spent more time on innovation than existential fretting. For starters, in addition to offering refunds to season-ticket holders who needed or wanted them, the team developed a digital season ticket service that offers fans regular online contact with players and staff. Those have continued through the tournament in Utah, connecting team and fans in a way likely to outlast the necessities of remote connectivity during a pandemic.

But any turnaround is ultimately only as successful as what the players make it on the field.

In a normal season and with a full roster that included additions Pugh, Midge Purce and McCall Zerboni, Sky Blue would have been a popular sleeper pick. LaHue even acknowledged the playoffs were the target. But with little in the way of a preseason to further adapt to Coombe's system -- and without franchise cornerstone Carli Lloyd and Pugh because of injuries -- the NWSL Challenge Cup was, in the general manager's words, aptly named.

"I think you would have been able to see a much better-put-together picture that we are attempting to build right now," forward Ifeoma Onumonu said of a longer season. "I think we've got a lot of good things going for us with the short amount of time we've had already."

And here they are in the semifinals, seven years after the team's first and only playoff appearance.

Sky Blue haven't been a revelation in Utah, but it's amazing how many breaks talented and well-run teams tend to catch. Start with some brilliant goalkeeping from Kailen Sheridan. Add steady veteran play from Gina Lewandowski, Nahomi Kawasumi, Estelle Johnson, Sarah Woldmoe and Zerboni, and suddenly surprises like Ghanaian midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe emerge from the positive environments in which they're immersed.

"I've been blown away by what the technical staff and the players have pulled off," LaHue said. "Obviously going into the semifinals of this tournament is just pure joy.

"I don't even have another word for it. It's just pure joy."

North Carolina will be back, but it's good to see what the rest of the league can do with a little room to breathe.

So how do the semifinals set up?

Portland Thorns FC vs. Houston Dash (12:30 p.m. ET)

Portland is no stranger to semifinals, having reached at least that stage in six of the league's first seven seasons. But even if its current No. 8 seed is a bit harsh for a team that lost just once in the preliminary round, and that in stoppage time, these aren't the normal Thorns.

Tobin Heath opted out of the event. Adrianna Franch and Becky Sauerbrunn are out with injuries. Even Lindsey Horan had come off injured by the time Morgan Weaver scored the winner from a Rocky Rodriguez assist against North Carolina. Horan is listed as questionable for the semifinal with a left hip injury. But if she plays, Portland still has a special midfield with Angela Salem playing behind the developing chemistry of Horan and Rodriguez. Not to mention that it seems far more likely that Christine Sinclair still has a goal in her than that the Canadian legend will go without all month.

Houston scored five goals in its first two games, so in a tournament largely starved for it, there is clearly offensive potential. And yet the Dash have also gone more than 300 minutes since they last scored, the longest active streak among the semifinalists. So we're not exactly working with convincing sample sizes either way.

There is so much to like about adding Shea Groom as a creative presence alongside Rachel Daly or watching Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster develop chemistry as center-backs in their first season together. But Houston has also ceded the edge in possession in every game and been less accurate in their passing than their opponents in the past four games. Playing on the counter and looking for the quick strike makes for a test of nerves in the team's first semifinal.

Sky Blue FC vs. Chicago Red Stars (10 p.m. ET)

If the Red Stars win a title without scoring a goal, would we stop talking about Sam Kerr? It makes for an interesting thought experiment. At some point Kerr's name will stop appearing (multiple times) in conversation about the team, but the Red Stars are still going to have to first prove they can score consistently without the former MVP. But with the team last among the eight participants with just 10 shots on goal, and the only goals scored by defender Casey Short and since-injured midfielder Morgan Brian, it's a fair, if also repetitive, narrative.

It would have helped if the Red Stars had either Brian or Yuki Nagasato available for the semifinal. Both remain out with injuries after also missing the quarterfinal. Chicago has options, especially with Savannah McCaskill's ability to play in a variety of attacking roles. But it's worth noting that Chicago was the last team other than North Carolina to score multiple goals against Sky Blue, winning 3-0 in New Jersey last September against a defense that will probably look largely familiar Wednesday. Brian and Nagasato each scored a goal in that win. The other goal? Kerr, of course.