North Carolina Courage are the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup champions. It's their second consecutive title after winning the tournament in 2022, and their seventh NWSL title in seven years. The Courage defeated Racing Louisville FC 2-0 in the 2023 final on Saturday in dominating fashion. After a lengthy weather delay at the 11-minute mark, the Courage dominated large stretches of the match as the game resumed.
Despite some brief moments of transition by Racing, the Louisville side was unable to look threatening in front of goal and exits the tournament as runners-up in their first-ever NWSL title game. North Carolina Courage were active throughout the entire game, outshooting Louisville 12-6 in total. The goals came from Kerolin in the 28th minute after she spent the first half hour terrorizing Louisville's back line, and then Manaka Matsukubo provided a brilliant finish in the 54th minute and secured the silverware.
Louisville gets early taste of NWSL title game
The Kentucky side entered the league in 2021 as an expansion franchise and exit their first-ever NWSL title game in any competition as runners-up. The team has tried to rebuild since their first season, after terminating their former head coach Christy Holly for cause, which was later investigated as sexual misconduct and coercion during the NWSL Joint Team investigation.
Head coach Kim Bjorkegren has built a roster through the draft and with internationals as the club continues to try and look ahead and compete for NWSL trophies. The team had the most players selected to the NWSL Challenge Cup Best XI, including goalkeeper Katie Lund who made nine saves against the Courage in the final.
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"I'm pretty bummed. You know, I think we really wanted this and we thought we had the momentum coming into the game and clearly it wasn't enough," she said after the game.
"You know, they played really well today, and we weren't able to match that. So part of that's on us, but now we turn the tables and we look forward to Friday because we're so close to this playoff push, and now we're just going to focus on that and that's where our focus will be."
Manaka introduces herself to the league
The Courage are no strangers to building out their roster with international players, and Saturday Japanese international Matsukubo introduced herself to the league. The 19-year-old arrived at the Courage on loan from Mynavi Sendai of the Japanese WE League during the summer transfer window and has only featured in three games prior to the Cup final. She provided the insurance goal, and absolutely sublime first-time lob with the outside of her foot and earned Challenge Cup final MVP. She is the youngest player to score in any NWSL title game and earn the MVP honor.
"I don't think she's even gotten comfortable yet. I think she's still trying to figure out. There's things we want her to be better at. I think she she runs a lot and we don't want her running so much," Courage coach Sean Nahas joked druing post-game comments.
"It's a world class finish. I don't think anyone else would have thought about hitting that first time out of the air. I think it's shows the level of IQ she has and to catch Lund... So yeah, I'm thrilled for her. She was shocked that she won the MVP. But yeah, for a 19-year-old to come into this environment and have an impact I think says a lot about her."
Courage rebuilding a new narrative
North Carolina entered 2023 also looking to rebuild toward new success after navigating a tumultuous 2021 through the termination of former head coach Paul Riley after reports uncovered sexual misconduct and coercion. Nahas was officially named head coach for the 2022 season after taking over in the interim role, and immediately had to navigate as multiple Courage players who won titles with the franchise left for other clubs.
The group won the 2022 Challenge Cup, but missed out on a shot at the postseason, and there were question marks around how the club managed their draft classes as well. Now the team is in playoff contention and has just earned another Challenge Cup title.
"We do want to build off of it. We just don't know where that's going to take us because, remember, everyone had us last place in every category -- you know, we lead the league in possession, passing accuracy, whatever else you want to talk about on the attacking side," said Nahas.
"We've had clean sheets. And we just won Challenge Cup. And hopefully that narrative can change for a lot of people and stop doubting us and start talking about the work that these players have put in because they deserve all that up all the accolades that they've gotten."
Brazilian international Kerolin is in just her second season with the club and is helping the team find success on the pitch. The winger exited the 2022 Challenge Cup final with a significant ankle injury and returned to this year's final to score what was ultimately the game-winner. Despite the rumors around the player and whether or not she will stay in the league, she's excelling in her time with the Courage.
"She's she's still so young, but she has a special talent and I think she's just scratching the surface," Nahas said of Kerolin's performance.
"After she missed the early one, Lund made a great save, you can see she was in her head about it during the break. I said 'You're gonna get another moment. It's just what you do with it. You're gonna get another moment. So if you get that moment, it's your job to shine.' And she got the moment and it took the game on its head.
"I know she's passionate about the game, she wants to learn every single day. She takes it seriously. I know there's a lot of rumors but you know, I think those are stories that people don't know what goes on behind the scenes, and we're thrilled to have her here. We feel we've developed her, we're going to continue to develop her. We played her her strengths. At the World Cup she played in the midfield, her strengths to us, for us, are out wide because of her qualities."
The 2023 NWSL regular season continues on Friday, Sept. 15 as Racing Louisville hosts Houston Dash. North Carolina Courage will travel away to face Orlando Pride. Sunday, Sept. 17. The playoff push is on with just four weeks remaining in the regular season. The 2023 NWSL Shield is still up for grabs, awarded to the winningest team in the league, and the 2023 NWSL Championship final will take place on Nov. 11 in San Diego, California.