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Takeaways from the NWSL Challenge Cup final

They had us in the first half, not gonna lie

Washington Spirit v North Carolina Courage Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The 2022 edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup is over and the NC Courage finished on top of the podium, getting a 2-1 win over the Washington Spirit to make sure they had their hands on the trophy when all was said and done.

The final was billed by the NWSL is a huge occasion. In fact, it was placed on the main CBS channel as well as the usual platforms to watch the NWSL (Paramount+, Twitch) but after a high tempo first half, the game devolved into something not many will want to ever witness again.

Here are some takeaways from a match that promised a lot at first, before becoming something we won’t want to remember any time soon.

Debinha, Kerolin and the Courage are set to have a big season

With so many stapled players leaving the Courage during the off-season, not many knew what to expect from the team that remained. Head coach Sean Nahas has spoken before about how his team is all about the players there now, and not those who left. After watching their performances over the last few weeks, Nahas is 100% correct in that assessment.

Washington Spirit v North Carolina Courage
Kerolin was awarded the MVP trophy for her performance today
Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Ever present players like Debinha , Abby Erceg, Denise O’Sullivan and Carson Pickett have provided a solid formation for the team to not only rebuild on but also rely on to carry them to glory. The Courage have added more fire power to their team with the addition of Kerolin and the drafting of Diana Ordóñez, two young players who are making their mark on the team. Despite not scoring today, Ordóñez were a constant threat to the Spirit backline and had it not been for an injury, Kerolin probably would’ve gotten more than just the one goal she got today.

There’s a lot to like about the Courage right now and if they can tighten up defensively, they will be a force in the NWSL once again.

The Spirit have lost a game under Kris Ward

This is a first for the Washington Spirit under Head Coach Kris Ward. Since taking over, Ward has never lost a game with the Spirit and has led them to plenty of success. Today’s showing was not what we were used to seeing from the Spirit however. They weren’t quite clicking as an attacking unit and were exposed far too often in midfield, something that the return of Andi Sullivan should be able to fix.

What was more concerning was that as the game wore on, the Spirit seemed to lose their composure. The officiating didn’t help but the resolve and cockiness that usually is associated with a Spirit comeback win wasn’t to be found today. That’s not to say they didn’t try and get back into this game, they did. However, as the half wore on, it seemed as though more players were interested in fouling instead of jockeying a player and trying to win the ball back without getting blown up for a foul.

Washington Spirit v North Carolina Courage

It’ll be interesting to see how this group bounces back from this loss. One would think with the veteran leadership they have, the likes of Kelley O’Hara, Aubrey Kingsbury and Emily Sonnett, the Spirit will be back to firing on all cylinders soon. There is a small worry though that both the Courage, and OL Reign midweek, have found a way to defeat this Spirit side. Ward and his team will have to break down the tap so to speak to figure out how to overcome this new tactical obstacle facing them now as more teams in the NWSL will be sure to use it against Washington going forward.

Referee, where was your whistle?

Speaking of officiating, this isn’t a new problem in the NWSL. The officiating in this league has always been problematic and this final was one of the worst we’ve seen in awhile. Katja Koroleva was the center referee today and she let the game not only bypass her but completely overwhelm her, something that you wouldn’t expect from a referee as experienced as Koroleva.

Many might say her first mistake was not awarding the Courage a penalty in the first half when the ball clearly struck Emily Sonnett’s hand but according to the rules of the game, she made the right call there. The most egregious missed call would come later on in the game.

As Kerolin raced towards goal, Sam Staab went in for the challenge and seemed to take the Courage forward out inside the penalty area. Koroleva signaled for a corner kick but replays clearly showed that Staab had mistimed her tackle and honestly, could’ve caused some serious damage to Kerolin’s ankle. That was the turning point in this match. The game suddenly went from an entertaining one to one where everyone was dreading the next tackle, or the next challenge because it was becoming more physical out there. Koroleva also missed a shot to the ribs by Ashley Hatch on Erceg although that seemed like a mistimed attempt to get to the ball by Hatch. It rankled the Courage players however and they began to get even more aggressive with their challenges, with the Spirit matching them step for step in physicality too.

Washington Spirit v North Carolina Courage
Referee Katja Koroleva did not have a good game
Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

That culminated in a collision between Debinha and Jordan Baggett which left Baggett lying on the floor, in apparent distress. The game was stopped and the broadcast went away while Baggett received attention and was eventually taken off the field by a stretcher. Both sides were clearly affected by that injury and it all stemmed from a lack of control from Koroleva.

The referees in the NWSL have spoked out about their training and treatment by the Professional Referee Organization, the organisation in charge of officiating in the US, and while I’m sympathetic to their cause, that doesn’t excuse what we saw out there today. This is now a matter of player safety and if the officiating isn’t up tp standard, we may see more incidents like what we saw today, and that’s not good for fans or for the NWSL as a whole.

With the new sponsorship deal set in place for the Challenge Cup, one hopes that all the bad we saw, especially in that second half, won’t happen again. Otherwise, we may need to rethink the Challenge Cup as a whole before we give it more prominence than it’s worth.