Kansas City Current vs. North Carolina Courage score, takeaways: Courage back to NWSL Challenge Cup final

The North Carolina Courage are off to their second NWSL Challenge Cup final in as many years thanks to a goal from Brianna Pinto in stoppage time, which allowed them to pick up a 1-0 win at the Kansas City Current.

The Courage will play in the final on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, CBS) against Racing Louisville, who beat the OL Reign 1-0 in the other semifinal.

Both teams opted to play their best teams and included Women’s World Cup players who missed group stage fixtures. That strategy paid off for the Courage, who settled into a rhythm early on. They had 68.2% of possession and recorded five shots during the first half, one of the best ones coming from 19-year-old new signing Manaka Matsukubo in the 15th minute. Only two were on target, though, and the team only racked up an expected goals tally of 0.3 going into the half. The Current, by contrast, failed to take a single shot during the first half.

The second half got off slower, but the Current eventually found their feet going forward and registered their first shot in the 58th minute through Alexa Spaanstra. The two sides slowly but surely traded shots and inched closer to goal, perhaps no closer than the Current were in the 81st minute when a handful of players were in the box. A scramble in the penalty area meant the Courage had enough defenders on the goal line.

The Courage remained the dominant side throughout the second half, though, and pushed for goal as penalties loomed. A few players tried to have a look at goal but last-ditch defending on the Current’s part kept the score level until the ball landed at Pinto’s feet. The substitute then scored from close range in the sixth minute of stoppage time, sending her team off to the final in the process.

North Carolina upended the Washington Spirit, 2-1, to claim the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup trophy.

Here are three takeaways from the Courage’s big win.

Depth is key

This season, the Challenge Cup was a showcase for depth players by design. The early part of the group stage took place during the regular season, much like a traditional cup competition, and then became the NWSL’s exclusive product midway through the summer while the league’s stars were off at the World Cup.

It did not initially seem like their night to shine, especially considering that the Courage opted to play many of their first-choice lineup rather than rotational players like Brittney Ratcliffe, who excelled during the World Cup players’ absence. A few of them excelled, too — Kerolin was active on the flank and had 75% passing accuracy in the final third, and also notched two shots of her own.

However, it felt appropriate that a substitute delivered the game-winning goal late in the match. Pinto made the most of her 18-minute cameo with three shots and the game’s lone goal, as she posted an expected goals tally of 0.27 on her own. A special shoutout also goes to Matsukubo, who is poised to cement herself as a starter in no time after taking three shots and boasting a passing accuracy of 80.6% against the Current.

Finishing touch lacking

Despite the Courage’s attacking exploits, it was an underwhelming night for the visiting attack that nearly resulted in the match heading to penalties. The team racked up 16 shots but only put five on target and only mustered an expected goals score of 1.14. By comparison, the Current did more with less — they had eight shots, three on target, and an expected goals tally of 1.03.

From the Courage’s attacking unit, Kerolin and Matsukubo stood out, but forward Tess Boade registered just one shot during her 82-minute shift with an expected goals score of 0.16 and otherwise failed to make her mark on the match.

The same was true for the Current, who boast the tournament’s leading goalscorer in Kristen Hamilton, along with Brazilian star midfielder Debinha. They had their moments in the second half, but the Current failed to register a single shot in the first half and were on the back foot throughout the second.

Current’s defensive strength

Pinto’s stoppage-time goal nearly erases a strong defensive effort from the Current, which kept a possession-first, attack-minded Courage at bay for most of the match. The hosts’ defensive performance was perhaps the match’s storyline until the Courage finally broke the breakthrough moments before the full-time whistle.

Goalkeeper AD Franch was up for the task until the very end and made four saves on Wednesday, while right back Hailie Mace had the task of defending Kerolin on the flank. The Courage winger won the battle early in the match, Mace grew into her own, and with the help of center back Elizabeth Ball, was able to keep Kerolin quiet during the second half.

The result is in some ways cruel for the Current, who were excelling in the Challenge Cup despite a dismal regular season campaign that sees them sit bottom of the league. It is also full of silver linings for a Current team that reached the NWSL Championship just a year ago and can climb up the table next season in a league whose trademark is parity.

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