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Five former Virginia players prepare for NWSL Challenge Cup final

Five former Virginia players prepare for NWSL Challenge Cup final

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NWSL Dash Royals Soccer

Houston Dash forward Veronica Latsko (left) battles for the ball with Utah Royals FC defender Elizabeth Ball during the first half of a match at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.

A former Virginia soccer player will win the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup on Sunday.

With the championship game between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars set for 12:30 p.m. ET, at least one former Wahoo is guaranteed to hoist a trophy by the end of the weekend. If Houston wins, Veronica Latsko’s squad earns the title.

If Chicago wins, Danielle Colaprico, Makenzy Doniak, Morgan Gautrat and Zoe Morse become Challenge Cup champions. The Red Stars feature the most former Cavaliers of any team in the event.

After about a month in Utah competing in the tournament and living in one location, the championship arrives. That’s good news for Latsko, who has felt the mental and physical toll of playing in the single-site event.

“I can tell you that it definitely doesn’t feel like a month,” Latsko laughed. “It kind of feels like four months that we’ve been here for and I think any player that you talk to will kind of say the same thing. We feel like we’ve been here for a very long time.”

Competing in games while living in one location with limited activities makes for a challenging month. On the other hand, Latsko loves her team and the journey the Dash has taken to reach the final of the tournament.

“We have an awesome team and awesome people on the team that spending time with everybody makes the time here fun and enjoyable, so that’s really great,” Latsko said. “On top of that, we’ve had incredible success. Obviously, when you’re winning everything is 10 times better than when you’re losing.”

After dropping a pair of games early in the tournament, the Dash stepped up once elimination games began. The team advanced to the semifinals after a penalty kick victory over Utah. A 1-0 win over Portland in the semifinals punched the squad’s ticket to the championship game.

Chicago’s tournament went similarly. The team lost twice in its first three matches before reaching another level. The group used penalty kicks to advance to the semifinals before an offensive explosion in the semifinals.

The Red Stars scored three goals in a 3-2 victory over Sky Blue FC to advance to Sunday’s final.

With the Challenge Cup wrapping up, the event has largely been seen as a success. In addition to quality play, the NWSL became the first team sport in the U.S. to compete during the COVID-19 pandemic. MLB, the WNBA and the NBA are just beginning to play games, while the NWSL has competed since late June.

It hasn’t been a perfect event — Orlando was forced to withdraw days before the event due to positive COVID-19 tests within the team — but once in the Utah bubble, the Challenge Cup has gone smoothly.

“I have several conversations that I’m hoping to have with governors or mayors that we might be looking at because I want to show them what we did in Utah and how we worked with the Utah state and local officials to make sure that our protocols and our ability to be in a place conformed to them,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a press conference Friday.

The league developed a five-phase plan in its return to action, and Baird hopes the league’s successful tournament can serve as a guide for other leagues and localities as professional sports resume.

Despite the difficulty of remaining in a single location, Latsko and others felt confident in the league’s health protocols throughout the tournament.

“We feel super safe here,” Latsko said. “The bubble might have its challenges mentally, but it’s the best way to keep us safe. I think everybody feels very safe here.”

A successful tournament wraps up Sunday afternoon and at least one former UVa soccer star will leave the Utah bubble as a Challenge Cup champion.

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