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Frenzied NWSL Challenge Cup giving many players a chance to perform

Utah Royals FC defender Michelle Maemone (19) controls the ball as the Utah Royals and Sky Blue play in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup at Zions Bank stadium in Herriman on Saturday, July 4, 2020. Utah won 1-0.
Utah Royals FC defender Michelle Maemone (19) controls the ball as the Utah Royals and Sky Blue play in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup at Zions Bank stadium in Herriman on Saturday, July 4, 2020. Utah won 1-0.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — Like so many things these days, the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup being played in Utah has a bunch of weird elements to it.

Of particular note is that teams, and especially the coaches of those teams, are having to balance a number of competing interests as it relates to playing time for individuals.

On one hand, the monthlong tournament will almost surely be the only games the eight participating teams will get to play before next season, assuming things are back to more normal by next spring. Half of those squads will only get to play five times, four preliminary round games plus a quarterfinal contest, so there’s a sense among some of wanting to play as much as possible.

On the other hand, each team is playing a game every four days. While not having to travel at all certainly makes that easier, the frequency of games is still physically taxing on players.

The third competing interest is how realistic it is a given team has a chance to win the tournament. Yes, everyone involved will say they want to win it all, but some squads are in more of an evaluation mode (hello, Sky Blue FC), while others have a legitimate shot at the trophy. Then again, maybe only the North Carolina Courage can make that claim. The Courage have dominated all three of its games played so far and really is head and shoulders above the rest of the league.

There’s even some nuance with how the “we’re evaluating” teams approach playing time. How much can they glean from just five games? To a larger point, so much can happen to a roster over the course of a year, so how much will what a coach learns about his side this month really impact 2021?

Aiding both the concept of rest and the ability to evaluate players is the fact that teams can make five substitutions over the course of a game during the tournament, as opposed to the usual three.

All of these considerations mean that lineups are much more irregular than they likely otherwise would be under more normal circumstances.

Utah Royals FC was certainly a beneficiary of that on Saturday in its 1-0 win over Sky Blue at Zions Bank Stadium. Sky Blue, which is decent when at full strength, rested a couple of its starters into the second half. One of the team’s most important players, McCall Zerboni, didn’t play at all.

To be sure, usual URFC starters Katie Bowen and Gunny Jonsdottir also didn’t start, coming on as subs in the second half for Michelle Maemone and rookie Kate Del Fava, at which point URFC had all the scoring it would need.

In his first win as URFC’s head coach, Craig Harrington wound up using all five of his substitutions. Rookie first-round pick Tziarra King made her second appearance in two games, Mallory Weber made her debut after being nicked up for the tournament opener and newcomer Arielle Ship helped ice the game in the closing minutes in her first appearance.

Harrington is trying to play that balance of wanting to win while keeping players as fresh as possible, although the absences of key players such as Kelley O’Hara and Desiree Scott make that challenging.

“We’d love to rotate a bit more in certain circumstances, but with some people being more delicate with the minutes they play and perform, we need to make sure that we’re in a good spot,” he said. “I think the starters earned the right to start the match, to rotate and get that rhythm in the wide spots in the back. The players that came into those spots did tremendously well and we have a good core group that can come off the bench and finish the match well.”

Vero Boquete, whose beautiful ball set up Amy Rodriguez’s goal Saturday in the 41st minute, said the work of collectively getting better is and will be a continual process throughout the rest of the tournament.

“We try to improve every day. During the tournament we have to grow as a team and we’re trying to do that as a team. The players that are coming off the bench are doing a fantastic job and the team spirit is great,” she said. “We’re really united and we’re playing for each other and that’s what we’re going to do the rest of the tournament.”

One intriguing addition who hasn’t yet played, but could feature for the squad over the next few weeks is French midfielder Aminata Diallo. She was officially signed the morning of March 11 — the day the sports world started to shut down — and then stayed in France before arriving in Salt Lake City on June 27.

She then had to stay in mandatory quarantine for a few days, but was on the bench during Saturday’s game and kicked the ball around with teammates at halftime.

On Sunday, she posted on her Instagram story that she had her first training session with her new squad.

“First training with the team,” she wrote. “It’s very good intensity.”