Earlier this month, the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup concluded. The tournament provided many moments of joy and controversy for players and fans. The North Carolina Courage reclaimed the top spot in the league and took home the hardware.
COURAGE ARE YOUR 2022 CHALLENGE CUP CHAMPIONS!!!!!!!!! #CourageUnitesUs pic.twitter.com/obHJ108DsZ— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) May 7, 2022
After double expansion and several injuries to key veterans, many young rookie players received more playing time than expected. While some struggled, more often than not they proved they belong in this league. Beyond Women’s Sports brings you the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup Rookie Best XI.
Selections had no previous NWSL experience being drafted or signed this past offseason. This list also includes NWSL newcomers with experience in other leagues who are 25 years old or younger. With the regular season already several weeks underway, these newcomers continue to shine and look to make a lasting impact this season.
Goalkeeper: Phallon Tullis-Joyce, OL Reign
Technically, Tullis-Joyce does not meet the criteria of this list. She joined the Reign last year, but only recorded one minute the whole season. However, the goalkeeping display from Tullis-Joyce in the 2022 Challenge Cup cannot be ignored. She tallied 24 saves across seven matches and only allowed 5 goals against in that time. Equally impressive to the quantity of the saves is the quality. Every team she faced contains at least one world class striker including Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Sophia Smith, and Christine Sinclair. She secured Save of the Week three times during the Challenge Cup and made the all-tournament team. Her excellent play earns her a spot in our Rookie Best XI.
Defender: Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave FC
With the high expectations that come as the first pick in the NWSL Draft, Girma excelled in the Challenge Cup and lands on our Rookie Best XI. She logged 475 minutes across six matches, the second most among all field players for the Wave. While the Wave did concede 11 goals, Girma showed her consistent quality. Head Coach Casey Stoney often tasked Girma with leading the back line in the absence of club captain Abby Dahlkemper. Dahlkemper played limited minutes due to injury. On the field, Girma possesses the defensive intelligence and on-the-ball playmaking ability to be a long-time top defender in this league.
Defender: Jenna Winebrenner, Kansas City Current
In a notoriously fast-paced, transitional league, one of the best things a rookie defender can do is to minimize costly mistakes. While Winebrenner made some good decisions with the ball, her steady ability to limit mistakes gets her on the Rookie Best XI. After the departure of veteran center back Rachel Corsie, the club needed a player to grasp the “next up” mentality. In seven appearances, she contributed 504 minutes, more than any other rookie in the Challenge Cup.
Defender: Amanda Kowalski, Chicago Red Stars
At the start of the competition, Kowalski did not feature on Chicago’s roster. The club signed Kowalski mid-competition after the season-ending injury to defensive mainstay Tierna Davidson. Without Davidson’s presence, the defensive outlook for the club became complicated. With a new three-back design under first year Head Coach Chris Petrucelli, the defense needed the right piece to operate the system. Enter Amanda Kowalski. The Butler product played nearly every minute in all three of her appearances and recorded one goal. Her seamless transition into the team with a complicated new defensive system earns her a spot on the Rookie Best XI.
Defender: Julia Lester, Racing Louisville FC
Similarly to Kowalski, Lester did not start the Challenge Cup with Louisville. Searching for more defensive presence, Head Coach Kim Björkegren dialed up a familiar face. Lester played for Björkegren for two seasons at Apollon Ladies FC in Cyprus where she captained his side. Since signing, Lester amassed 421 minutes in five Challenge Cup appearances. Her effort and athleticism on the pitch contributed several last-minute goal-saving tackles and secured her position on the Rookie Best XI.
Midfielder: Alexis Loera, Kansas City Current
With a new Head Coach using the Challenge Cup to trial different systems, the versatile Loera took the chances afforded to her and ran. She plays multiple defensive and midfield roles well. Her confident decision making helped Kansas City secure the Central Division. She recorded 493 minutes, starting six of seven matches for the Current. Loera’s efforts land her on our Rookie Best XI. Also, she buried this wild long-range goal.
Midfielder: Malia Berkely, North Carolina Courage
Originally a highly-touted draft prospect out of FSU, Berkely elected to forego the draft and play in France. This season she returned stateside and joined the NWSL for the first time. She stepped in immediately and solidified the dual defensive midfield role next to Denise O’Sullivan in the box system. She connected well with other players and used her background as a center back to read passing lanes and disrupt play. Her 468 minutes in seven appearances contributed to a tournament-winning effort from her team. Additionally, she found the scoresheet with this rocket goal from distance.
Midfielder: Sam Coffey, Portland Thorns FC
After the retirement of Angela Salem, the Thorns needed a stabilizing central presence to control the tempo of the game, connect vertical passing lanes, shift the point of attack laterally, and clog up opponent attacking options. That is a lot to ask for any player, nonetheless a rookie. Coffey did not play the deep midfield role in college, often playing higher up the pitch at Penn State. However, her mature vision and pinpoint technical ability helped her adjust to the role in Portland and landed her on the Rookie Best XI. As often associated with the role, she did not make flashy plays or get on the scoresheet. However, her ability to step in immediately and fill a dire need for the club helped Portland almost make the Challenge Cup playoffs.
Forward: Elyse Bennett, Kansas City Current
When Lynn Williams went down with injury, nobody knew how the Current would respond. Without a complimentary piece to Kristen Hamilton, the offense risked becoming lopsided and one-dimensional. More than any other rookie in this league, Bennett embraced the opportunity. Any moment the ball approaches her area of the field, there is an indescribable excitement that permeates the air. Fans can feel how dangerous she is on the field. Her breakout ability to change games single-handedly in an instant parallels Trinity Rodman last season. Any player drawing that comparison is a lock for the Rookie Best XI. Bennett lead the Challenge Cup with four assists and secured Player of the Week for week five.
Forward: Kerolin, North Carolina Courage
Kerolin burst onto the scene mid Challenge Cup. By the end of the tournament, she gave defenders nightmares. The last thing a defender wants to see is Kerolin charging towards the box with the ball at her feet. Her body control is unreal. The fluidity and speed she uses to shift her weight baits and scares defenders into lunging in for at tackle. The problem is that by the time the tackle lands she has already changed where her body is positioned. Every time this causes a foul in the box and penalty kick for her team. Her efforts earned her the titles of Challenge Cup Champion and Challenge Cup Final MVP.
Forward: Jun Endo, Angel City FC
Even though Angel City struggled in the Challenge Cup, the forward line including Endo showed promise. One concern for players coming to the NWSL is the hyper-athletic nature of the league. Instead of looking a step behind, Endo fit in immediately. Her creative ability played a crucial role in creating dangerous chances for Angel City. She can drift inside to threaten different defensive channels, or she can beat an outside back on the periphery. For her Challenge Cup effort, Endo claims the final spot on the Rookie Best XI.
With the Challenge Cup concluded, the regular season is already underway. For more NWSL news and analysis continue to follow Beyond Women’s Sports online or on Twitter. You can also interact with the author on Twitter with comments and ideas.