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Northwestern in the NWSL: Knockout rounds commence

After an eventful group stage for Kayla Sharples, Hannah Davison, and the Red Stars, the Challenge Cup is kicking into gear.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 3 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Though every major American professional sport is now carrying out some kind of plan to get games in this year, the first league to return to action was the NWSL. And as their eight-team Challenge Cup, and particularly the Chicago Red Stars, enters the knockout stages, it’s time to look at how Northwestern alums have contributed to the first and possibly only professional American league to have a successful return from the coronavirus pandemic.

Unfortunately, due to a spate of positive tests before the tournament began, Marisa Viggiano’s Orlando Pride were not able to make the trip to Utah whatsoever. That left Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison, the pair of Red Stars center backs who started together all the way back in their club days and beside each other throughout their four-year Northwestern careers, as the only Wildcat representatives. So far, though, they have certainly made the most of it.

Red Stars head coach Rory Dames planned in advance to use the tournament’s group stage in particular to learn about what he really had in the young players he brought to Utah. As a result, Sharples and Davison, both in their second years as pros each made their first career start, with only the former even having seen the pitch before, in the second group game against the Portland Thorns.

The dynamic duo played the full 90 minutes, spearheading a group of youngsters against such stars as USWNT standout Lindsey Horan and legendary veteran Christine Sinclair, and looked sensational doing so, keeping the Thorns completely off the board despite the balance of play going there way and earning a crucial point that kept the Red Stars out of the No. 8 seed.

Sharples in particular was recognized for her performance both during and after the match, earning CBS Sports analyst Sandra Herrera’s player of the game honor along with plenty of other accolades. But Davison had her share of highlights as well.

A few days later, Claire Watkins put out an excellent interview of the pair, discussing the game, their development, and their stances on the Black Lives Matter movement’s connection to the NWSL, something they have been outspoken about, in a piece that is certainly worth the subscription.

Now the sixth-seeded Red Stars are in the quarterfinals, readying for a face-off Saturday nights at 9:00 pm central against third-seeded OL Reign on CBS All Access. Neither Sharples nor Davison is likely to get the start, but both have dressed for every march of the tournament, and you never know what could happen with five subs available.

Even if the hometown standouts don’t get a chance to see the pitch, tune in to watch what promises to be some excellent, high-stakes soccer.