The North Carolina Courage are back-to-back NWSL Challenge Cup winners after defeating Racing Louisville 2-0 in the tournament’s final Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park. Here’s what you need to know:
The Athletic’s instant analysis:
Racing looked tired
Racing Louisville beat the Reign 1-0 in the Challenge Cup semifinal on September 6, then woke up at 4 a.m. PT on September 8 to fly to Cary, North Carolina, arriving the evening before their game against the Courage. So it’s no surprise they looked tired early, with an at-home Courage looking far more sprightly in their ability to break down Racing’s back line.
But for all that, they did the best they could with what they had; Thembi Kgatlana tried to threaten through one-on-ones and Ary Borges had a nice shot on goal from a set piece. They just didn’t have the legs, and were often caught giving the Courage far too much space. — Yang
Courage scored in style
The Courage didn’t just have more legs, they also poured on the flourishes. Matsukobo was key to the Courage, her well-weighted balls dished through the back line often allowing Kerolin to threaten in the box. Kerolin herself was dangerous whether attacking the right flank or drifting centrally; she was able to tip multiple defenders off balance with the shape of her runs or using her body to fake out goalkeeper Katie Lund.
Manaka didn’t just provide great service out of the midfield, but also provided her own quality finish to match Kerolin’s. Manaka’s tasty one-time volley, dished smartly to her by Tess Boade, came on the run while tracked by her defender and was somehow even better than Kerolin’s own razor-sharp near post finish past Lund. — Yang
Lund comes up huge for Racing
Goals notwithstanding, Lund kept Racing in the game for a long time with several big stops, including an early stretch that palmed a ball away off the frame, and several close-range blocks that came down to reaction and being willing to put her body on the line. Y
ou get the sense that if Racing had even had one more day of rest between traveling and playing, they might have been able to put together a few more quality chances on goal as well as tighten up the defense in front of Lund. — Yang
Highlight of the match
WHAT A WAY FOR MANAKA TO GET HER FIRST COURAGE GOAL pic.twitter.com/vWycudyc7H
— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) September 9, 2023
This year’s NWSL Challenge Cup is the first to run concurrently with the NWSL regular season and features a prize pool totaling $1 million. Group-stage play began on April 19 with three divisions of four teams each. The top three teams in each division, plus the highest-placing second-place finisher, advanced to the semifinals: No. 1 Reign, No. 2 Current, No. 3 Courage and No. 4 Louisville.
The league is expected to scrap the tournament in 2024, according to a report by The Equalizer last month.
The 2023 Challenge Cup semifinals and final take place in the midst of the NWSL season’s homestretch — there are four games left before playoffs. Only three points separate the top five teams in regular-season standings and the clubs no longer involved in the in-season tournament will have two weeks without a game.
(Photo: Bob Donnan / USA Today)