I’m going to go ahead and say it: the North Carolina Courage will be crowned 2022 Challenge Cup Champions. I know this means that the Washington Spirit will be handed their first loss since August 2021, but hear me out.
Washington battled OL Reign to a scoreless draw in the semifinals, ultimately coming away with the win after 10 rounds of penalties. The Spirit struggled during regulation, with OL Reign looking more composed defensively and more dangerous in the attack than the Spirit for the majority of the match. Washington’s go-to front line of Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch, and Trinity Rodman were uncharacteristically quiet, yet none of these players rotated out of the line-up. This is worth keeping in mind because the final is set to kick off just 62 hours after the end of the semifinal match and players will need time to rest and recover.
Washington’s defense also looked less organized than usual and they were bailed out by their goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury, the offside flag, and egregiously poor officiating (i.e., a no-call Spirit handball in their box during stoppage time). In the post-game media session, Kris Ward chalked this up to his team being unfamiliar with the Reign’s pressing structure. Unfamiliarity certainly won’t be an issue for Ward’s side in Saturday’s final, though, as this will be the third time the two teams face one another in 2022.
Regardless, I still think North Carolina will come away with the trophy.
The Courage scored two first-half goals to secure a 2-1 win against the Kansas City Current on Wednesday. Debinha got on the board first after burying a penalty kick, upping her goal tally to six in as many games for the Courage (five in the Challenge Cup, and one in the Courage’s regular season opener against Angel City FC). In other words, Debinha has scored the same number of goals in 2022 as she did across all competitions in 2021.
The penalty that Debinha converted was drawn by Kerolin Nicoli, who was also involved in North Carolina’s eventual game-winning goal. Rookie Diana Ordoñez finished Kerolin’s cross (or was it a shot?) in her very first start with the club. Though Ordoñez has been credited for that goal, it’s clear that Kerolin is crucial to North Carolina’s attack. She was difficult for the Spirit defense to handle the last time the teams faced off and I expect her to wreak havoc in the final third again on Saturday.
Contrary to Ward’s approach to substitutions, Courage head coach Sean Nahas made five changes in the semifinals. Clearly he had one eye on the final and I think this decision will pay off for his squad.
Since it’s unlikely that North Carolina’s first-choice goalkeeper Casey Murphy will be ready to play on Saturday, I doubt the Courage will come away with a shutout. With that said, I’m predicting a 2-1 scoreline, with at least one of the Courage’s goals coming from the Brazilian duo that has been absolutely electric throughout this tournament.