North Carolina Courage's Challenge Cup win shows the best and the worst NWSL has to offer

The National Women's Soccer League showed some of its potential at Saturday's Challenge Cup final -- but the match also showed how far the league has to go.

The title went to the North Carolina Courage, who outlasted the Washington Spirit in a bruising affair with a 2-1 win. The Courage's Brazilian duo of Debinha and Kerolin was electric for much of the match while the Spirit battled to the end through its attacking trident of Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman.

The bonus pool of $10,000 to each player on the winning team and $5,000 for their opponents -- a ten-fold increase from past iterations of the NWSL Challenge Cup -- is one example as to how much the league has grown. It also seemed to heighten the game's intensity, which the officiating team, in the absence of VAR or video-assisted refereeing -- a long-time fan complaint -- failed to punish in dangerous moments.

"I think in the end, it came down to competing," said Courage manager Sean Nahas. "It wasn't about football anymore."

"I talked to the players a lot about individual responsibilities and so that we can collectively be great," he added. "And I think today we were that way. Everyone did their job at any given moment. And we're exhausted. Our team is exhausted."

It was certainly a game of attrition, and the game's quality was raised only in moments. Much of the pregame chatter focused on the quick turnaround -- Saturday's final came just three days after the midweek semifinal round while the NWSL regular season started last weekend -- as well as the fact that the fixture pileup was happening so early in the season. That played a significant role in the quality of the match.

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"You can tell that the players were tired," said Courage defender and captain Abby Erceg. "You could tell that the fatigue was setting in and it was just a matter of like who was more fit. I think it's really disappointing for a final. I think you want to see two teams that are doing really well play the best football that they can."

But an officiating team led by head referee Katja Koroleva also failed to keep dangerous moments in check and, by the end, injuries began to pile up. Kerolin hobbled off with an ankle injury with 20 minutes left in regulation time after a nasty tackle in the box from Sam Staab that looked like it should've been an obvious red card. Spirit keeper Aubrey Kingsbury suffered a double blow to the head on the Courage's game-winner, but stayed in the match anyway.

The scariest injury came just moments into second half stoppage time when the head of the Spirit's Jordan Baggett made heavy contact with the ground following a challenge involving Debinha. The television broadcast showed a dazed Baggett lying on the ground, and while the Spirit's medical staff were out quickly, the time it took for the arrival of a stretcher seemed painfully long, with the Spirit's players running out to help speed up the stretcher's arrival.

Spirit manager Kris Ward said Baggett was immediately taken to the hospital, and that the team would soon follow. He said he didn't know much beyond that.

The fact that Baggett could be seen on the television broadcast smiling was a good sign, but it showed that while the game's players are its strong suit, the ancillary aspects of the league's organization, especially in terms of player safety, still have some ways to go. After the 2021 season was marred by concerns about player safety of a different sort -- widespread allegations of verbal and physical abuse that led to half the team's coaches leaving their jobs -- the Challenge Cup was a reminder of the other work still to be done.

As for how the Challenge Cup could be tweaked in the future to avoid overworking players, Ward expressed confidence that the needed changes in terms of scheduling would be made. The Challenge Cup started in 2020 as a replacement for the regular season amid the pandemic, but since evolved into a preseason tournament, which this year overlapped with the beginning of the regular season.

"There continues to be talk both from coaches and league personnel about how we can adjust the Cup how we can make it the best thing possible," Ward said. "I just think there's a lot of different forces that are at play sometimes and in the interim, as we continue to try and grow this, we have to do the best job that we can.

"I just think it's part of the growth and we'll just continue to talk amongst ourselves as the league coaches and league personnel about what the best format looks like going forward with the parameters that are in place."

The match settled into a clash between the Courage's ability to threaten in transition versus Washington's press. The Courage had the upper hand for most of the first half, and broke on top in the 10th minute when Debinha broke free of the Spirit's Kelley O'Hara and played in Kerolin who finished past Kingsbury. The Brazilian duo continued to threaten but a combination of stellar keeping from Kingsbury and some wayward finishing kept North Carolina from extending its lead.

Courage manager Sean Nahas said he tweaked his formation into more of a 4-2-3-1 in order to conserve energy.

"They got out of it a few times but it just kept our legs fresh, didn't have us do any extra running that we didn't need to do," he said. "It didn't stretch us out anymore... I give full credit to the players and how disciplined they are because it's not easy when you're so used to pressing one way."

The Spirit's press and aggression in midfield got Washington back in the game, and the visitors equalized in the 35th minute. Dorian Bailey won a second ball and fed Rodman, who played Hatch in on goal and her well-placed shot went in off the far post.

The second half saw the Courage reassert itself. Diana Ordoñez had a glorious chance in the 65th minute after being set up by Debinha, but contrived to shoot wide from six yards. The Courage should have been awarded an obvious penalty three minutes later due to Staab's aforementioned takedown of Kerolin, but without VAR the match officials were unmoved.

Yet any sense of injustice in terms of the score implications was short-lived. Carson Pickett's delivery from the ensuing corner was nodded towards goal by Ordoñez, and then deflected off the Spirit's Taylor Aylmer for an own goal. The Courage then survived over 12 minutes of stoppage time to claim the win, and the bonus.

As Courage defender Carson Pickett put it: "It's nice to raise a trophy but it's also nice to have money."

That is just one part of the overall investment in the game. The hope -- and expectation -- is that the NWSL will take note.