The Women’s National Football League showed some of its potential in Saturday’s Challenge Cup final – but the match also showed how far the league must go.
The title went to North Carolina Courage, who beat the Washington Spirit in a sore affair with a 2-1 victory. Brasilian duo Debinha and Keroline from Team Courage were strong throughout most of the match while the soul fought to the finish through the attacking trident of Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman.
The bonus sum of $10,000 for each player on the winning team and $5,000 for their opponents – a tenfold increase over previous iterations of the NWSL Challenge Cup – is one example of how the league has grown. He also appeared to intensify the match, which the ruling team failed to punish at dangerous moments in the absence of VAR or VAR – a longtime fan complaint.
“I think ultimately it’s all about the competition,” said Courage director Sean Nahas. “It is no longer about football.”
“I’ve talked to the players a lot about individual responsibilities and so that collectively we can be great,” he added. “And I think we were like this today. Everyone did their job at any moment. We are exhausted. Our team is tired.”
It was definitely a game of draining, and the quality of the game skyrocketed in just moments. Pre-game chatter focused on the rapid turnaround – Saturday’s final came just three days after the semi-final round in midweek while the NFL regular season started last weekend – as well as the fact that the game backlog was happening so early in the season. . This played an important role in the quality of the match.
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“You could tell the players were tired,” said Courage Defender and captain Abby Ersig. “You could tell the fatigue started and it was just about who was fitter. I think it’s really frustrating in the final. I think you want to see two really good teams playing the best football they can.”
But the team in charge led by referee Katya Koroleva also failed to keep the dangerous moments in check, and in the end, injuries began to pile up. Keroline slipped with an ankle injury 20 minutes before the end of normal time after a poor tackle in the penalty area from Sam Stubb that looked like it should have been an obvious red card. Spirit guard Aubrey Kingsbury sustained a double-hit in the head on the winner of the guage match, but stayed in the match anyway.
The scariest injury came in just moments of injury time in the second half when Jordan Baggett of Spirit grappled hard after the Deppenha challenge. The television broadcast showed a dazed Baggett lying on the ground, and while Spirit’s medical staff were quickly outside, the time it took for the stretcher to arrive seemed excruciatingly long, with Spirit players running out to help speed up the stretcher’s arrival.
Spirit manager Chris Ward said Paget 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 Paget was seen on television smiling was a good sign, but it showed that while the game’s players are her strong suit, the helpful aspects of the league’s regulation, particularly in terms of player safety, still had some way to go. After the 2021 season was marred by player safety concerns of a different kind – widespread allegations of verbal and physical abuse that led to half of the team’s coaches leaving their jobs – the Challenge Cup was a reminder of the other work that remains to be done.
As for how the Challenge Cup might be modified in the future to avoid player fatigue, Ward expressed confidence that needed changes would be made in terms of scheduling. The Challenge Cup started in 2020 as an alternative to the regular season amid the pandemic, but has since evolved into a pre-season tournament, which this year overlapped with the start of the regular season.
“There is still talk between both the coaches and the league staff about how we can modify the Cup and how we can make it the best thing possible,” Ward said. “I just think there are a lot of different forces that come into play sometimes and in the meantime, as we keep trying to develop this we have to do the best job we can do.
“I think it’s part of the growth and we will continue to talk amongst ourselves as coaches in the league and individuals in the league about how best to move forward with the standards that exist.”
The match settled into a clash between Courage’s ability to threaten the transition versus the Washington press. Brave had the upper hand for most of the first half, breaking the lead in the 10th minute when Debenha broke free from Spirit’s Kelly O’Hara and played in Keroline who finished Kingsbury. The Brazilian duo continued to threaten, but a combination of star-keeping from Kingsbury and some misguided finishing prevented North Carolina from continuing its lead.
Courage manager Sean Copper said he’s revised his formation over 4-2-3-1 in order to conserve energy.
“They got out of it a few times, but it kept our legs fresh, and didn’t make us do any extra runs we didn’t need to do,” he said. “It’s not up to us anymore…I give full credit to the players and how disciplined they are because it’s not easy when you’re used to pressing one way.”
Spirit pressure and aggressive midfield put Washington back into the game and the guests leveled in the 35th minute. Dorian Bailey won the second ball and fed on Rodman, who played Hatch in the net and her shot rebounded well positioned at the far post.
The second half saw courage assert itself. Diana Ordoñez had a brilliant opportunity in the 65th minute after Debenha put it down, but she sought to shoot the ball from six yards away. Courage should have been awarded a clear penalty three minutes later due to Kerolin’s aforementioned Stubb sending off, but without VAR technology, the match officials were unaffected.
However, any sense of injustice in terms of the ensuing consequences was short-lived. Carson Beckett from the ensuing corner headed home by Ordonez, then drove away Taylor Elmer from Spirit with an own goal. Courage then survived over 12 minutes of injury time to claim the win and the bonus.
As defender Carson Beckett said: “It’s good to raise a glass, but it is also good to have the money.”
This is just one part of the total investment in the game. The hope – and expectation – is that the NWSL will take note.