UKG NWSL Challenge Cup Final: What you need to know ahead of Racing vs. Courage

Both road teams in the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals found a way to earn a result, setting up the chance for North Carolina Courage to repeat on home turf.
North Carolina Courage v Washington Spirit: Quarterfinals - 2021 NWSL Championship
North Carolina Courage v Washington Spirit: Quarterfinals - 2021 NWSL Championship / Brad Smith/ISI Photos/GettyImages

Sometimes it only takes one. One moment in attack. One defensive mistake. That was the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals in a nutshell.

Coming off a short turnaround, the two lower seeds in the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals earned narrow one-goal victories away from home. It sets up a contest between a club that has been-there, done-that consistently at the top of the league and a side looking to earn its first major trophy.

Even with that fact, there will be experience on both sides of the pitch on Saturday afternoon. Carson Pickett and Abby Erceg will both be donning purple and black after starting for the opposite side last season. In a league like the NWSL, you can't read into that whatsoever. Scrap the records. Forget about the past. None of that matters when a trophy is on the line coming toward the conclusion of the campaign.

Here's hoping the league can move on from a championship game to forget from its perspective last season. The match included extremely questionable officiating and a severe injury to now Racing midfielder Jordan Baggett. A lot has transpired since that fixture that has made strides to help protect its players with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Here is a look into what you need to know before the opening whistle.

How each club reached the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup Final

North Carolina Courage (4-2-1)

As it usually is for Sean Nahas' North Carolina Courage, it took a total team effort to seal a semifinal result in the mid-west against Kansas City Current. Led by the now 2023 Challenge Cup MVP, Kristen Hamilton, Casey Murphy and NC's backline held the Current in check for the majority of the contest. KC mustered just two shots on goal with one of them needing a spectacular save from the USWNT international to keep it out.

In knockout stage games, impact substitutes make a massive difference. Brianna Pinto was that for NC. After coming into the match in the 72' for Manaka Matsukubo, Pinto was active, recording three shots and the eventual game-winner in stoppage time. As Nahas said to the team postgame, "That's a moment." It sure was. After KC looked like it stymied the chance, throwing bodies in front of the ball, Pinto stayed with it.

Just seconds after hitting the deck, the Courage's No. 8 fired a rocket with her left foot past the 2021 Challenge Cup Player of the Final Adrianna Franch. It was the second time during this competition that the Courage found the back of the net in stoppage time. The other occasion was against Washington Spirit on the road when Olivia Wingate completed a second-half comeback.

The defending champions began this tournament with two draws. Since, it has outscored its opponents 14-2. It does not just end with Kerolin. That is the best part about this team. The way NC found its way to the final was through a talented defense and an attacking unit littered with game-changers.

Racing Louisville FC (5-0-2)

Following back-to-back ninth-place finishes in the league and two group stage exits in the Challenge Cup, Racing Louisville was not supposed to be here. The only team to not have won their group that clinched a spot into this stage shutout Laura Harvey's OL Reign in one of the toughest environments in the league.

The Reign gifted Kirsten Davis just one chance. A striker of her quality was in no way going to pass up that. Before the Seattle side could even blink, the ball was in the back of the net. Harvey's side may have outshot Louisville through 90 minutes, but the efficiency was not there. Centerback Erceg amassed 10 clearances while Ary Borges and Davis completed every take-on they attempted to pave the way to the final.

With the Kentucky side sitting outside the postseason bubble as it stands for right now, Saturday is an opportunity to prove that this campaign was a step forward. Racing began the tournament with four straight triumphs but fell short of the East Division crown due to two consecutive defeats. On the back of an inspiring league win in front of their home fans against Portland Thorns, Racing came in with loads of momentum. September and October are the best times to be flying in the NWSL. Kim Björkegren's team led by Savannah DeMelo are without question doing just that.

What to watch for in UKG NWSL Challenge Cup Final

Katie Lund vs. Casey Murphy

If you like goalkeepers, this is the match for you. It is the current save leader in league play against the clean-sheet pace-setter for a spot at a trophy. Lund and Murphy are both 6-foot-1 shot-stoppers who use their wide frames to get to shots others just can't. The two faced just four shots combined the last time these clubs faced off. In the early match back in May, the USWNT No. 2 came up with five saves.

It may not be a match where there is a barrage of shots. That does not mean something special won't happen between the sticks. When called upon, these two are ready for the spotlight. Each keeper has earned an individual honor this season. Lund took home the Week 6 NWSL Save of the Week in addition to being named to the Challenge Cup Team of the Tournament. Murphy was awarded a spot on the league's June Team of the Month.

Thembi Kgatlana and Racing's attacking depth against NC's defense

This fixture is talent-rich. Not only USWNT talent but quality from all over the world. Louisville takes pride in that. The multi-dimensional attacking line has a tall task ahead of it with the Courage holding the league's most consistent defense. Kaleigh Kurtz and Malia Berkely anchor the center of the back four while Emily Fox and Ryan Williams fly up the flanks. The team gave up just five goals through the Challenge Cup group stage, the best mark in the East Division.

If you want to know just how deep Björkegren's team is just watch the semifinal. Uchenna Kanu, the Nigerian star striker, and Nadia Nadim, the Danish doctor came off the bench. How those two along with Thembi Kgatlana, Paige Monaghan, and Davis make it as if Louisville will never be out of it. The match can be altered by anyone on the bench. If a trophy on the line is not enough to turn on the television, this on-pitch battle provides another reason.

Prediction: North Carolina Courage 2-1 Racing Louisville

Racing Louisville vs. North Carolina Courage will be broadcast live on CBS and Paramount+ on Saturday, September 9 at 12:30 p.m. in Cary, North Carolina.