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Challenge Cup final tale of the tape: Steady Courage vs. newcomers Louisville

North Carolina looks to defend its Challenge Cup title in yet another final for the successful club, while Louisville is on unfamiliar ground against a team they’ve lost to in all eight prior meetings

© Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

After two tight semifinal matches where only a single goal was scored in each, the North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville FC will compete for the 2023 UKG Challenge Cup title this Saturday.

In one corner, the Courage return to home soil to defend their Challenge Cup title after defeating the Kansas City Current for the second time in two consecutive Challenge Cup semifinals. Last year, the Courage beat the Washington Spirit in what was ultimately an ugly, physical final to win the trophy. In addition to their 2022 Challenge Cup win, the Courage are perennial contenders in the National Women’s Soccer League having won three consecutive Shields from 2017 to 2019 and back-to-back league championships in 2018 and 2019.

In the other corner, Racing Louisville enters its first major tournament final after sliding into the semifinals as the wildcard. Prior to this year, Racing had never made it out of the group stage of the Challenge Cup. Louisville has never made it to the regular-season playoffs, either, so this will only be their second knock-out match in the team’s short three years of existence.

Despite completely different histories of success, there are a lot of variables that make it hard to say who has the upper hand on Saturday. North Carolina may have a better-developed winning pedigree, but Louisville is amidst a record tear that’s seen the team slay other league giants. But with the Challenge Cup itself set to be scrapped in 2024 and four critical regular-season games remaining, how much will each team be willing to put on the line for the trophy?

Here’s a quick rundown of where each challenger currently sits and what viewers will want to look for when watching the Challenge Cup final this Saturday at 12:30 PM ET on CBS.

North Carolina Courage

At first glance, the North Carolina Courage seems to have a strong upper hand in this competition. Not only are the Courage the returning champions, but they get to defend their trophy on home soil at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. They’ve also just had a more consistent season. In the regular season, the Courage sit in third place with an 8-6-4 record. Five of those wins were at home, so it’s clear the home-field advantage is real for them. They also won their division in the Challenge Cup while their opponent, Racing Louisville, is only coming in as the wild card.

North Carolina also has an 8-0-0 record against Louisville across three seasons coming into this match — and hardly any of those were close wins. North Carolina has handed Racing its most humiliating losses ever with 5-0 and 5-1 scorelines. So, while there’s no question that Courage has every reason to be confident heading into a final at home facing a team against whom they hold a perfect record, they’re going to need to elevate their game, because the semifinal against the Kansas City Current was far from a convincing performance.

In Wednesday’s semifinal, only a late, stoppage-time goal from Brianna Pinto amidst a scramble in the box pushed the Courage over the line against the team that sits dead last in the regular-season standings. It’s true that despite being in the running for the league championship and possibly even the Shield, the Courage has a somewhat inexplicable Achilles heel against the Current this season. They barely edged past Kansas City, 1-0 in the opening game of the season and then fell to them 1-0 in early June. But they’ll have to look sharper if they’re going to beat a newly energized Racing Louisville, because although the Courage largely had the upper hand in Wednesday’s semifinal, they never looked particularly deadly and seemed hesitant to shoot.

Of course, with the Courage being in an excellent position to make a regular-season push to the top of the standings, it’s fair to wonder how much effort they really want to put into winning this trophy. After last year’s final, the Courage and their opponent, the Washington Spirit, never quite recovered from their physical battle. Both teams had a very hard time shaking off the fatigue of the tournament to perform well in the regular season. While the Courage definitely don’t want to lose the Challenge Cup, they are unquestionably more keen to win the league championship and possibly the Shield. On Friday, Courage players said they don’t think about the competition structure; they focus on winning the game in front of them.

There’s a full week between the final and the next regular-season match, so it’s fair to assume they’ll put out a mostly full-strength lineup on Saturday. However, it will be interesting to see just how hard they push these starters if the game remains up for grabs into the second half. Will Pinto, who scored the game-winner in the semifinal, be rewarded with a start to try and capitalize on her current form? Or is she better off the bench as a super sub who can inject energy into the game late?

Either way, the best thing the North Carolina Courage can do is to try and put a goal or two away early and force Racing to try and come back from behind. The Courage have plenty of mental advantages in this game, so they need to take full advantage of them by hitting Racing early and hard and then letting the crowd and momentum do a lot of the work for them. Of course, that’s easier said than done against a recently resurgent Louisville team that’s had some pretty solid comebacks lately.

Racing Louisville

Historically, Racing Louisville is not a winning team. The team has never finished a season above ninth place and has spent all of this season hovering around the middle of the table without really breaking above the playoff line. Racing has the most draws of any team in the regular season with nine and, in the Challenge Cup, they were the wild card team behind the Kansas City Current, who won the central division.

Despite this not-so-convincing (and albeit brief) history, Racing is amidst an unprecedented hot streak. In this week alone, the team has achieved a stunning number of firsts. Last Saturday, Racing came back from behind to beat the first-place Portland Thorns for the very first time. That pushed Louisville’s regular-season points total to 24, the most in team history — and they still have four games left to play. On Wednesday, they beat OL Reign for the first time in the Challenge Cup semifinal. This match also showed an immense amount of growth for a Racing team that had given up two-goal leads to OL Reign twice this season. The fact that Racing was able to score in the first half and hold onto that result all the way through to the end demonstrates that this team’s mentality has shifted from earlier in the season.

With two league giants slayed for the first time in just five days, Racing only has one team left in the NWSL that it has never beaten in any competition: the North Carolina Courage, of course. To take out all three of their personal bogeymen teams in the course of eight days would be a stunning achievement for Racing. It’s almost too good a storyline to be true, but, considering the hot streak Racing is on, it’s possible.

Take, for instance, how Louisville played against the Courage already in 2023. Instead of getting hammered, the Courage only beat Racing by a single goal in each match and, in the most recent one in Cary, it was only a late goal in the 73rd minute that let the Courage scrape by. So, if ever there was a time Racing was in its best position to beat the Courage, it’s arguably now.

Of course, there are some definite issues for Racing that might be enough to keep their fairy tale from being realized. One, Louisville spent the last week pinging around the country from playing Portland in Louisville, then a late game against OL Reign five days later in Seattle and now all the way over to North Carolina just three days later. That’s a lot of miles on the players’ legs and travel logs. Add to it the fact that they haven’t had the healthiest roster, either, with Jaelin Howell in questionable form after missing the last three matches across all competitions, plus left-back Carson Pickett and midfielder Jordan Baggett totally out with injuries. Forward Nadia Nadim is also just finding her way back onto the pitch from an extended injury layoff as well. Still, it’s with these players missing that Racing has gone on this winning streak, so maybe that’s not as detrimental as it might seem.

There’s also no question that this trophy will mean more to Racing than to the Courage. Racing has never won anything substantial and even if the team fails to make the regular-season playoffs, this can still be seen as a tangible accomplishment for a young club on the rise. Louisville still has a shot at the postseason, however, so head coach Kim Bjorkegren will have to carefully consider who on the roster they rest and who they push with a critical game against the Houston Dash coming next weekend. Is it worth putting a player like Howell in on Saturday if she’s not 100%? Racing has put out their best 11 in every Challenge Cup match they’ve played, so how they approach this game from a roster perspective will be interesting as well.

The key for Racing to beat the Courage is not to get rattled. Racing will be on the road in a stadium they’ve never won in, with the weight of the team’s history against the Courage hanging overhead. If North Carolina goes up early, Racing players need to stay confident in the fact that they can see a game through. And the longer they can keep the Courage at bay, the more the Courage is potentially going to question themselves and wonder why they can’t put the game away.

If Racing players and coaches get the gameplan right, they may just slay the last of the three giants that have been looming over them and take home their first hardware as well.

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