In a game that was overshadowed by injuries on both sides of the ball, the North Carolina Courage are 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup Champions after defeating the Washington Spirit, 2-1 at WakeMed Soccer Plex in Cary, North Carolina on Saturday. Kerolin scored for the Courage, who also benefitted from a Taylor Aylmer own goal. Ashley Hatch scored for the Spirit.
The lasting image from this match will not be any of the three goals which decided it, but rather Jordan Bagget being carted off the field in injury time after a collision with Debinha.
That injury followed both the Courage’s Kerolin and Spirit keeper Aubrey Kingsbury being forced off the field in rapid succession around the hour mark. A tough tackle in the box from Spirit defender Sam Staab on Kerolin led to a no call in the box. As Kerolin exited the match, the Courage found the game winner off the ensuing corner kick on an own goal from the Spirit. On the play Kingsbury crashed into the post and received treatment briefly but stayed in the game.
The ragged second half followed a high-energy opening 45 minutes. The Courage immediately set the tempo in the scoring early as the Brazilian duo for Debinha and Kerolin — who was named Challenge Cup final MVP — connected for the opening goal in the 11th minute. Debinha carried the ball up the flank, beating Kelley O’Hara, before threading a ball through to Kerolin.
The Courage were dominant for half an hour before a controversial no call on a potential handball in the box led to the Spirit equalizer in the 35th minute as Trinity Rodman linked up with Hatch. That meant that the two sides entered halftime even, despite the Courage outshooting the Spirit 15- 5.
Then the injuries began. The second half was plagued by fatigue, as the two teams battled for the title on short rest coming off Wednesday semifinals. The way the match ended, with Bagget’s injury, and her teammates actions to hasten medical attention, will be the indelible image of the game, but minutes later the final whistle blew and the Courage lifted the trophy, making them the 2022 Challenge Cup champions for the first time in club history.
Spirit head coach Kris Ward and the team were on a 20-game unbeaten streak heading into the Challenge Cup final. But heading into the regular season, a few Spirit players will need continued medical evaluation after several difficult moments on the pitch throughout the game, particularly Bagget’s exit via ambulance. Ward said after the game that there were no further updates at this time.
“All know is that they left. Just a few minutes ago, it was right before the end of the game. We’re getting over to the hospital and we’ll have her checked out. But that’s all I really know right now, unfortunately,” he said.
The league has concussion protocols in place, including extra substitutions, though Ward confirmed that his goalkeeper will be evaluated further.
“We go through and do a concussion check with our own medical staff. I wasn’t sure at first, if they were going to do a separate one, in the end they didn’t. But our trainers are really thorough about that. So, we’re gonna go and have her checked out now, Ward added.
“But going through, and listening to her, and seeming like she was okay and responsive to the initial test. We’ll go and we’ll take a look now just to see if there’s any delayed onset of symptoms or anything. But yeah, I just wasn’t sure at first but again, our trainers do a great job and so hoping that she’s fine.”
For the Couragem head coach Sean Nahas said he spoke with Kerolin after she was subbed out with an ankle injury and that she wanted to stay in the match.
“I think there’s just a knock the way she fell and the angle of it, but she wanted to go back in. When we put her back out, D [O’Sullivan], Meritt [Mathias] and Deb [Debinha] said she can’t go, so we just made the change,” Nahas said. “She wasn’t planning on coming out, we weren’t planning on taking her out with someone else. But, we solidified in a different way. So she’ll be OK, I hope.”
Courage defender Carson Pickett earned her first NWSL title after being drafted back in 2016. The fullback created three chances during the match and recorded two shots, and credited the team with closing out the game in light of so many injuries.
“I think that’s professional sports. No matter what happens, we’re trained to just keep our head in the game and not worry about external things unfortunately,” Pickett said.
“Obviously send good vibes to the Washington player and hope that she recovers. Injuries happen, that just happens in professional sports, and especially soccer. So, I think it was important with such little time left in the game to just try and keep our composure stay together and finish the game off.”