NWSL Challenge Cup: Five standouts in their first full-time roles

With many U.S. national team stars either out of the tournament or sidelined since they arrived in Utah, the NWSL Challenge Cup has provided an opportunity for some young players to show what they can do.

Here are five players who have stood out in their first full-time roles in the NWSL.

Bella Bixby (Portland). Bixby is a stand-in for U.S. national team keeper Adrianna Franch, sidelined with a knee injury, and getting her first chance with the Thorns in three seasons as a pro. The Oregon State product has been plagued by injuries since being taken by the Thorns in the 2018 College Draft. She never got to play in Germany with FFC Frankfurt and broke her finger on the eve of the 2019 NWSL preseason. At the NWSL Challenge Cup, Bixby has started all four games in goal and picked up shutouts in her last two games. Not bad considering the Thorns lost national team star Becky Sauerbrunn with a hip injury after the opener.

Kate Del Fava (Utah). At Illinois State, Del Fava was the 2019 Missouri Valley Player of the Year after scoring 17 goals as a senior. But it was her versatility that got the attention of the Utah Royals, who selected her with the No. 12 pick in the 2020 College Draft. Utah coach Craig Harrington has used her on the left side of his back three, bringing her on the second half of the 3-3 tie against Washington in the tournament opener and starting her against Sky Blue FC (1-0 win) and OL Reign (1-0 loss).

Sabrina Flores (Sky Blue FC). Flores was signed to a two-year deal ahead of the Challenge Cup after spending the 2019 NWSL season as a replacement player and moving to Spain, where she played for Sevilla until the Spanish season was shut down in March. Injuries have given the defensive specialist a chance, and she started three of the four Sky Blue games in the preliminary round. Flores was raised in New Jersey (Livingston) and attended Notre Dame. She played for the USA at the 2016 U-20 World Cup but later trained with her twin sister, Monica, on Mexico's senior team.

Addisyn Merrick (NC Courage). Merrick isn't a complete unknown -- she was the 2019 Big 12 Defensive of the Year at Kansas --  but few expected the fourth-round College Draft pick to be starting for the Courage. But on the eve of the tournament, Courage coach Paul Riley tipped her to be a player to watch. Merrick got her chance at right back with Merritt Mathias still rehabbing a torn ACL, and she hasn't looked out of place in three starts, all wins.

Ashley Sanchez (Washington). Sanchez's exploits with the U.S. youth national teams and at UCLA are well known, and the Spirit moved up in the order to take the Californian with the No. 4 pick in the 2020 College Draft when she decided to turn pro after her junior year. Sanchez, who set a Bruin record with 42 career assists in three seasons, has the assist of the tournament with a back heel she used to flick a corner kick into the path of  Sam Staab for a goal against Portland.
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