The North Carolina Courage defeated the Washington Spirit 2-1 in the NWSL Challenge Cup final on Saturday, but not before hard fouls and collisions caused more players to exit the preseason tournament.
Injuries on both sides overshadowed the victory, with the Courage’s Kerolin and Spirit’s Aubrey Kingsbury and Jordan Baggett all leaving the game at various points. Seconds before the Courage’s game-winning goal, Spirit defender Sam Staab went in for a tackle on Kerolin, forcing her to leave the game in the 70th minute though no foul was called on the play. Kerolin was later named the Challenge Cup final MVP and celebrated the win with her teammates.
KEROLIN 🤩The 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup MVP 👏 pic.twitter.com/hMFko3YmHP— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) May 7, 2022
KEROLIN 🤩The 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup MVP 👏 pic.twitter.com/hMFko3YmHP
Following the tackle, the Courage scored off of a corner kick, thanks to an own goal from the Spirit. During the play, Kingsbury crashed into the post and was evaluated by the Spirit’s training staff. Washington head coach Kris Ward said after the game that the keeper was responsive during on-field tests, which led to their decision to keep her in the game.
During stoppage time, Baggett went down hard after colliding with Courage striker Debinha. Medical personnel pushed a stretcher out onto the field, and Spirit players helped them rush the cart over to Baggett. As the midfielder was stretchered off the field, she could be seen smiling.
Spirit players literally ran over and grabbed the stretcher because they weren’t moving fast enough. This is after players, coaches and refs are whistling, yelling and waving for the medical crew. pic.twitter.com/dr8geInwmN— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) May 7, 2022
Spirit players literally ran over and grabbed the stretcher because they weren’t moving fast enough. This is after players, coaches and refs are whistling, yelling and waving for the medical crew. pic.twitter.com/dr8geInwmN
Baggett was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and “is under evaluation,” the team said in a statement. Spirit owner Michele Kang reportedly traveled with Baggett to the hospital.
This year’s Challenge Cup has been marred by injuries, with several high-profile stars being ruled out for the season, including Kansas City’s Lynn Williams and Orlando’s Marta. The referees have generally called tighter games, handing out over 100 yellow cards through the Challenge Cup group stage compared to 43 in the 2021 tournament. The officiating, however, has been called into question, most notably on Wednesday after a no-call on a handball helped the Spirit advance past OL Reign and to the final.
A few weeks ago, Spirit coach Kris Ward ruminated on the challenges of the preseason tournament in an interview with The Equalizer.
“How you take care of players, how you travel, how you eat, how you sleep, what type of surface you have to train in or play on — those are all things that impact the quality of the game. In my opinion, that’s how we should be looking at these things,” he said. “And so, creating a tournament up front and then putting such a dollar sign on it for the players to make it overly competitive, before maybe they’re ready for it, maybe that’s not the best thing. Maybe it is.”
On Friday, the NWSL announced a partnership with UKG that will boost the Challenge Cup’s prize money this year and in the years to come. In the postgame press conference on Saturday, Courage defender Carson Pickett called the bonuses life-changing.
“In our profession, $10,000 changes people’s lives, so I think that we have to give credit to the sponsors and to the league,” she said. “We’re finally getting somewhere. It’s nice to have a trophy, but it’s also nice to have money.”