Courage score late, Racing score early to set up Challenge Cup final – Equalizer Soccer

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Photo: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Courage are back in the NWSL Challenge Cup final and will host Racing Louisville for Saturday’s finale. Here’s your bite-size recap of Wednesday’s semifinals.

KC Current 0, NC Courage 1

What happened: Brianna Pinto turned on a loose ball and scored it in the 6th minute of stoppage time to send the North Carolina Courage to the Challenge Cup final for the second straight year. The 1-0 win over the Kansas City Current also marks the second straight year the Courage have won a semifinal at Children’s Mercy Park.

One big moment: The Courage were the better side for much of the night but dodged a major bullet less than 10 minutes from the final whistle. Their former midfield heartbeat and Challenge Cup wizard Debina drove an 81st minute corner kick into the box that wasn’t handled by goalkeeper Casey Murphy. With the keeper on the ground, Michelle Cooper sent a shot towards the goal. Several Courage players dropped back to defend the goal line and the last of them, Narumi Miura, blocked Cooper’s shot with her midsection. A few touches later and the Courage cleared it out of danger and maintained the 0-0 scoreline.

What it means: This match probably meant more to the Current who sit at the bottom of the regular season table. They are not officially eliminated from playoff contention but for all intents and purposes, their final four matches will be played out of the string. The way they gave up the winning goal adds insult to injury.

After weathering an early storm and making a better showing of themselves after halftime the Current looked like they were heading for penalty kicks. It was a Courage throw-in that did them in. No Current player was able to control it for the clearance and after multiple players were tied up trying to win it, Pinto found the ball at her feet and just enough time and space to easily beat Adrianna Franch for the decisive goal.

The Courage will host the Challenge Cup final Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park where a year ago they defeated the Washington Spirit in an ugly affair to claim the trophy. The Courage also remain alive for the treble sitting only two points off the Shield pace.

OL Reign 0, Racing Louisville 1

What happened: Kirsten Davis took advantage of an OL Reign turnover and scored a 28th minute goal to lead Racing Louisville to a 1-0 victory and a Saturday date with the North Carolina Courage at WakeMed Field. It will be Racing’s first final and a chance to deny the Courage back-to-back Challenge Cups. The goal was the only one conceded by the Reign in the tournament after they kept clean sheets in all six West Division matches.

One big moment: It was about as routine a situation as you could have. Racing was flagged for offside and the Reign set up to put the ball back in play with the ball just above the right corner of the penalty area. Sam Hiatt stepped into it and inexplicably centered the ball where Kirsten Davis was casually standing to block the passing lane to Phoebe McClernon. Davis threw a leg up, knocked the ball down, and was suddenly one-v-one with Laurel Ivory. Davis scored what ended up being the only goal of the night.

What it means: Racing Louisville did not finish the Challenge Cup well, losing the final two group matches in Houston and Kansas City. That sent them to Seattle as a wild card team after opening with four straight wins. Undaunted, they weathered an early storm and then tenuously rode out the 1-0 lead for more than an hour. Even the emergence of Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, Jordyn Huitema, and Emily Sonnett was not enough to breach Racing’s goal.

The winning side can call VAR a friend on the night. In a sequence that straddled the hour, Thembi Kgatlana was initially whistled for a penalty for pushing Sofia Huerta from behind. The VAR review showed contact was initiated outside the box and the penalty was pulled back for a direct free kick. The attempt was blocked by the Louisville wall.

As for the Reign, a 703-minute Challenge Cup shutout streak dating back to the 2022 group finale blew up in spectacular fashion. It marks the third year in a row that the Reign have lost a semifinal at home. They fell in the 2021 and 2022 NWSL semis to the Spirit and Current. Also in 2022, they dropped the Challenge Cup semifinal on penalties after a 0-0 regulation draw against the Spirit that should’ve been a home game but was played in DC

The Reign will now turn their attention towards returning to the NWSL playoffs. Their next match is a September 16 trip to Portland to face their cascadia rivals the Thorns.

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