No team in the history of the NWSL has won more titles than the North Carolina Courage. While the Washington Spirit did not make it easy, the relentlessness from the top half of the pitch for the Courage paid off when the final whistle sounded. Kerolin's prolific offensive attributes and creativity around the goal finally paid off as she found the back of the net in the most important game of the competition. Arguably the most consistent and deserving team in the Challenge Cup this season had the privilege of lifting the third-ever Challenge Cup trophy.
The NWSL has plenty of memorable moments during this season's Challenge Cup. From the ascension of the Kansas City Current to the quality of the Washington Spirit attack to the consistency of Sean Nahas' side, this year's competition was arguably the most competitive one yet.
The Challenge Cup was only a taste of what the NWSL has to offer the rest of the season with the regular season already off and running. Players on both sides were exhausted by the end, putting the questions of the competition format up for debate. Two new expansion sides questioned the competitiveness of the league many, but if the Challenge Cup told the world anything, it is that this league has only one direction to go, onward and upward despite a tough ending.
Following the trophy-winning match, Courage captain, Abby Erceg spoke about her team's Challenge Cup performance, stating, "Coming into preseason, there was just a feeling about the group, a vibe about the group, a different energy, and it’s a winning energy...I wanted the group to experience that, and I think moving forward [winning the Challenge Cup tournament]is only going to help in terms of experience...I’m really happy for the girls, I think they’ve done a lot to get to the place that they’re in. I think we were written off quite early, so for them to prove everybody wrong is cool."
For the Washington Spirit, this match was filled with demoralizing injuries, including Jordan Baggett who came on as a substitute, and in the end, she left on a stretcher. She suffered a serious head injury after a collision in stoppage time. In the 70' of the match, the player that led the Spirit to the win over OL Reign in the semifinal, Audrey Kingsbury smashed her head against the post as she attempted to keep the game level. While she remained in the game after receiving an evaluation, whenever a player goes down due to a head injury, it is always a cause for concern. Seeing two players on the same team hit the deck due to collisions that involved their head is not how the Spirit wanted to end this competition.
The rollercoaster of competition for Washington ended with the club thinking more about the health of its players rather than the result. Many players and coaches on the Courage including Nahas wished the best for Baggett as she exited the field in over of the most frightening ways possible.
Even after the victory, Nahas was still thinking of the well-being of Baggett, stating, "We’re thinking of Jordan, [it’s a] pretty scary situation. I’ve known Jordan for a while. So, on behalf of the Courage, I’m wishing her a speedy recovery, and hopefully, everything checks out okay."
The Spirit started the competition with a plethora of questions about their ability to build off of an NWSL title. Two concerning draws in the row for Washington to start, and the team that was the favorite to win the cup at the end was looking unlikely to get out of the group stage.
The trio up top for the Spirit of Ashley Sanchez, Trinity Rodman, and Ashley Hatch have become one of the most lethal attacks in the entire league. Sanchez has had a coming-out party in the Challenge Cup this season as she has been a headache for each opponent that has to line up against her. While Washington may have come up short at the end of 90 minutes in the Challenge Cup, the future of this club is as bright as any. Kingsbury showed the potential of possibly becoming the best goalkeeper in the NWSL with her rock-solid hands and quick reflexes.
The back-four and the midfield have also evolved into something extraordinary with Taylor Aylmer and Anna Heilferty taking huge steps forward considering their young ages. Sam Staab is both solid and physical in the back for Washington as she has become a clear number one centerback for Kris Ward. The outcome of the competition was no doubt what Washington would have wanted with it being so close to hoisting the trophy, but there is plenty for this club to be looking for with a potent attack and a forward-thinking owner of Michele Kang now with majority control.
It was the Courage in the end that conquered all of the storylines. Many critics counted the club out with the departure of many essential players during the offseason. The majority of people did not even see this club getting out of the East Division with the Spirit and the evolution of NJ/NY Gotham FC. Nahas and his squad defined all odds and took the entire competition by storm right from the start. The combination of Kerolin, along with Debinha in the attack has proved to be the nightmare that the NWSL was not at all ready for.
The speed and ball skills of Kerolin earned her the game's MVP even though she had to leave the contest after taking a hard tackle by Staab in the second half. There is no defense in the entire league that has the speed and relentlessness to be able to keep up with an attack that the Courage have at their disposal. North Carolina put together a performance that resulted in Washington's first defeat in the last 18 matches played in all competitions. The Courage may have not always gotten the more quality chances compared to the opposition, but they were always the most clinical. North Carolina always took advantage of the chances that were thrown its way each time out.
It was not just the Brazilian duo that proved to be the difference for the Courage, the rest of the squad stepped up in their own creative ways. With Casey Murphy out of the lineup for the entire Challenge Cup, Katelyn Rowland stepped into the role seamlessly as the team tied for the second-fewest goals allowed in the preseason competition. Merritt Mathias, Carson Pickett, and Erceg in the back along with the return of Jaelene Daniels have created plenty of versatility in a year that many would have thought at the start to be a rebuild.
Two-time NWSL Champions, three-time Shield holders, and now one-time Challenge Cup winners. The North Carolina Courage have cemented themselves in the upper echelon of teams in arguably the most competitive women's soccer league in the entire world. The best part for the Courage is that nobody saw this coming, and the best of this team's quality is yet to come with plenty of time to grow in the 2022 regular season.