For the first time ever, NWSL teams will play in South America.

NJ/NY Gotham FC and Racing Louisville will participate in The Women’s Cup in Colombia, with doubleheaders scheduled for Feb. 27 and March 2. Both NWSL teams will be joined by América de Cali and Deportivo Cali, winners of two of the last three Liga Femenina Profesional championships.

“The Women’s Cup Colombia provides an invaluable competitive opportunity for us to face high-level opponents in true game scenarios,” said Gotham FC general manager Yael Averbuch West in a press release. “As we fine-tune our chemistry heading into the regular season, we look forward to meeting new opposition in addition to exposing both the players and the club brand to new audiences and experiences.”

It’s the first time in history that two NWSL teams will compete against two South American clubs. It’s also the first time that the Women’s Cup will be played in South America.

Three more Women’s Cup tournaments are planned in 2024, with the others yet to be announced. Summer events in the United States and Europe are set to be announced in the coming weeks.

Reigning NWSL champion Gotham FC will kick off the tournament against Deportivo Cali on Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. ET. Racing Louisville will play América de Cali at 8 p.m. ET.

Losers of those games will play a third-place match at 5:30 p.m. ET on March 2, while the winners will play in the tournament final at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Racing Louisville has played in the Women’s Cup before, having won the first edition of the tournament in 2021. They beat Bayern Munich on penalties in the championship match. Other teams to have won the event are OL Reign (2022) and Atlético Madrid (2023).

Beverly Yanez is Racing Louisville’s next head coach, having been elevated from her position as an assistant coach during the 2023 season.

Back in October, the club parted ways with head coach Kim Björkegren, announcing that he was returning home to Europe “to pursue other opportunities.” The 41-year-old from Sweden had joined the club in December 2021, with his contract set to expire this year.

Yanez joined the club as an assistant coach ahead of the 2023 season after two seasons with Gotham FC in the same role. She retired from professional soccer in February 2020, after a career that included stops with the Western New York Flash and OL Reign.

As an assistant coach, Yanez has received high praise from several Racing players, including Paige Monaghan, who joined Louisville from Gotham FC in free agency. Yanez helped bring in Monaghan, and the forward became a key part of the team’s attack this year, recording a career-high four goals and two assists.

“I was just blown away by her,” Monaghan said of Yanez. “She treats everyone so well and just cares so much about every single person: whether you play 90 minutes, whether you’re playing five minutes, whether you’re not rostered, whether you’re hurt.

“She brings the best out of every single player. So, I think Louisville hiring someone like that and bringing her in on staff says a lot about the direction.”

Racing Louisville joined the NWSL as an expansion team in 2021 and has yet to make the playoffs in three seasons, finishing in ninth place in 2022 and 2023. Yanez is the third head coach in the club’s history.

Tobin Heath is opening up about the 2020 NWSL expansion draft and the heartbreak that came with it.

At the time, Heath was playing with Manchester United in the Women’s Super League, with the Portland Thorns retaining her NWSL rights. Heath, who had been with the club since their inaugural season in 2013, was selected by Racing Louisville in the expansion draft after going unprotected by Portland.

In the latest episode of “The RE-CAP Show,” Heath called her selection by Louisville “the biggest heartbreak of my life.”

“For me, playing in Portland was one of the greatest honors of my life. It gave me a childhood dream,” she said. “It was a big surprise to me to learn I was picked up in the expansion process. And I will say, I envisioned myself playing in Portland for the rest of my career.

“I envisioned myself living in Portland for the rest of my life and putting all of my football and everything that community gave me back into the club.”

While she was playing with Manchester United during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was told “by all parties” in the NWSL that she didn’t have to worry about the expansion draft. But she knew as soon as she got the phone call that she had been picked up.

“Immediately, I was kind of in denial,” she said, noting that she told her agent to tell Racing Louisville that “there’s no way I will ever show up.” She held true to that, continuing to play overseas before her rights were eventually traded to OL Reign. She played five games for the Seattle-based club in 2022 before being sidelined by injury.

“In one way, it had nothing to do with that particular club, but it had everything to do with the club I was currently on,” she said. “I have never cried harder in my life. I couldn’t console myself.”

Both Heath and co-host Christen Press also talked more generally about the expansion draft and the effect that it can have on players.

“Sometimes players are really excited about it. Sometimes players want to move,” Heath said. “So then there’s the very opposite of that, where maybe there’s a player that has signed a long-term contract with a club, has invested time there, has put down roots there, and they are left unprotected and therefore could be picked up.

“And I think there’s a little bit of chicken and egg that happens, where clubs play some games seeing which players they can leave unprotected and still have the feeling that they won’t get picked.”

Press talked about the issue with the NWSL basing its structure, including the expansion draft, off American sports leagues such as the NBA and NHL, rather than mirroring the European soccer system.

“My issue with our league being based off those leagues is multifaceted, but one big problem, I think, when it comes to reallocating or the way that players are moved around and traded around, it doesn’t work for this league because the players aren’t getting paid enough,” she said. “All of the moving pieces, which in this case are human beings, really matter.”

The NWSL coaching carousel continues, as Racing Louisville has parted ways with head coach Kim Björkegren.

The club announced Björkegren’s departure Friday, calling it a mutual decision. The 41-year-old from Sweden “will return home to Europe to pursue other opportunities,” per Racing Louisville.

Björkegren joined the club in December 2021. His contract was set to expire this year, with an option to extend. According to The Athletic, Björkegren decided to depart the team and informed the club before his contract option could be discussed.

“I want to say thank you for two great years,” he said in the team news release. “It has been a lot of hard work, but I’m now happy to leave the club in a better position from when I came to Louisville. … After many years abroad, it’s now time to go back home to Sweden with my family.”

Before coming to the NWSL with Racing, the Swedish manager coached in China, Cyprus and Sweden.

The 2023 season saw Louisville missed out on the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Racing finished ninth in the 12-team league, similar to its first two years in the NWSL. They also lost three of their final four games, which hurt their playoff chances.

In its first three years as a franchise, Louisville has had two head coaches and one interim head coach. The club’s first head coach, Christy Holly, was fired for cause in August 2021 for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing a player. Holly later was permanently banned from the NWSL following a league-wide misconduct investigation.

The NWSL playoff race is coming down to the wire, with eight teams vying for the final four spots in simultaneous matches on the final day of the regular season.

Just four points separate the third- and 10th-place teams in the standings. While the Chicago Red Stars and Kansas City Current already have been eliminated, the Houston Dash, Racing Louisville, Angel City FC, Orlando Pride, OL Reign, Washington Spirit, Gotham FC and North Carolina Courage are all still fighting for postseason berths.

While the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave are locked into the top two seeds, those teams are fighting for the NWSL Shield, adding to the drama.

Check out the playoff scenarios here.

NWSL Decision Day: Schedule for Oct. 14

  • North Carolina Courage 1, Washington Spirit 0
  • NJ/NY Gotham FC 2, Kansas City Current 2
  • Orlando Pride 1, Houston Dash 0
  • OL Reign 3, Chicago Red Stars 0
  • Angel City FC 5, Portland Thorns 1
  • San Diego Wave FC 2, Racing Louisville 0

All games will be aired on Paramount+ at 5 p.m. ET Sunday. CBS Sports Network is also set to air a live whiparound show tracking the progress from each match and evolving playoff scenarios.

Just Women’s Sports will be updating this story with live results from each game.

With one matchweek remaining in the NWSL regular season, just two teams have clinched playoff berths, and just two teams have been eliminated from contention.

A mere six points separate first and sixth place in the standings, and five points separate sixth and 12th place. That sets up a frantic finish to the playoff race, with the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave already into the postseason and eight other teams vying to join them.

Prepare for a chaotic decision day at 5 p.m. ET Sunday, with four playoff spots on the line. Just Women’s Sports breaks down the postseason picture, with help from Alison Gale’s playoff explorer. CBS Sports Network will feature whiparound coverage of all six matches.

NWSL playoff-clinching scenarios: Oct. 15

Portland Thorns FC (35 points, +14 goal differential)

  • Already clinched:
    • Top 2-seed
    • First-round bye
  • Clinches Shield with:
    • A win
    • SD loss
    • A draw + SD draw
    • A loss by seven goals or less + SD draw

San Diego Wave FC (34 points, +7)

  • Already clinched:
    • Top 2-seed
    • First-round bye
  • Clinches Shield with:
    • A win + POR draw/loss
    • A draw + POR loss by eight goals or more

North Carolina Courage (30 points, +6)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win
    • A draw
    • A draw + NJY draw/loss OR RGN draw/loss OR ORL draw/loss OR LA draw/loss
    • A draw + favorable goal differential (over LA/ORL)
    • A loss + no more than three of NJY, RGN, ORL, LA reach 31+ points + favorable goal differential (over LOU)

NJ/NY Gotham FC (30 points, +1)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win
    • A draw + RGN draw/loss OR ORL draw/loss OR LA draw/loss
    • A draw + favorable goal differential (over LA/ORL if both win)
    • A loss + no more than three of NCC, WAS, RGN, ORL, LA reach 31+ points + favorable goal differential (over LOU)

Washington Spirit (30 points, -2)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win
    • A draw + NJY loss OR RGN draw/loss OR ORL draw/loss OR LA draw/loss
    • A draw + favorable goal differential (over LA/ORL if both win)
    • A loss + no more than 3 of NJY, RGN, ORL, LA reach 31+ points + favorable goal differential (over LOU)

OL Reign (29 points, +2)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win
    • A draw + no more than 3 of NCC, NJY, WAS, ORL, LA, reach 31+ pts + favorable goal differential
    • A loss + ORL draw/loss + LA draw/loss + LOU draw/loss + favorable goal differential

Orlando Pride (28 points, -2)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win + favorable goal differential
    • A win + NJY loss OR RGN draw/loss OR LA draw/loss
    • A draw + RGN loss + LA draw/loss + LOU draw/loss + favorable goal differential

Angel City FC (28 points, -3)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win + favorable goal differential
    • A win + WAS win/loss + ORL loss/draw OR RGN draw/loss OR NJY loss

Racing Louisville FC (27 points, +3)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win + no more than three of NCC, NJY, WAS, RGN, ORL, LA reach 31+ points + favorable goal differential

Houston Dash (26 points, -1)

  • Clinches a playoff spot with:
    • A win + RGN loss + LOU draw/loss + LA draw/loss + favorable goal differential

NWSL schedule: Oct. 15

  • All games kick off at 5 p.m. ET Sunday
    • Angel City FC vs. Portland Thorns
    • Chicago Red Stars vs. OL Reign
    • Gotham FC vs. Kansas City Current
    • Orlando Pride vs. Houston Dash
    • San Diego Wave vs. Racing Louisville FC
    • Washington Spirit vs. North Carolina Courage

After the final whistle blew in North Carolina’s 2-0 Challenge Cup final victory over Racing Louisville on Saturday, the collective energy held both jubilation and relief. The Challenge Cup is a recent staple of the NWSL calendar, an in-season competition that has uplifted and strained the boundaries of what a domestic competition can look like in the U.S.

With changes to the Challenge Cup possibly on the horizon in 2024, let’s take a look at what the 2023 competition meant not just for its winner, but also the NWSL as a whole.

North Carolina is going to be just fine

With record prize money on the line, sometimes the main takeaway from a Cup competition begins and ends with the winner. This year, the Courage took the crown, adding a second-straight Challenge Cup title to their long list of NWSL championship wins and earning a payout from the $1 million prize pool. The win can serve as a galvanizing force for a talented squad firmly in the mix for a playoff spot, currently in third place in the regular season standings.

The Courage’s past success rightfully looms large over everything the current team does. What head coach Sean Nahas has managed to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time is to mold a group that plays with the same core, on-field values as the titans of 2017-19, while letting his current roster be themselves.

Brazil superstar Kerolin was her typical excellent self on Saturday, but the young players around her are the foundation of what North Carolina hopes will turn into many trophies in the future. It’s no secret the Courage have lost an immense amount of talent through requested trades and free agency in recent years, but their acquisitions have quietly come together to form a balanced group ready to prove itself. Brianna Pinto’s game-winner in the team’s Challenge Cup semifinal gave the team a necessary boost, and 19-year-old midfielder Manaka Matsukubo enjoyed her star moment with a brilliant strike to seal the victory in the final and win MVP.

In 2022, the tolls of North Carolina’s Challenge Cup victory early in the regular season appeared to haunt them as they fell out of playoff contention. This year, it could be the force that propels them to new heights.

A change in format is probably necessary

There have been reports that 2023 was the final iteration of the Challenge Cup in its current format, and issues during the knockout rounds highlighted why the NWSL is likely rethinking the future of the competition. Originally created to replace a COVID-19 pandemic-disrupted regular season in 2020, and then to mitigate regular season risks in 2021, the Cup has been an awkward fit the last two years.

Managers across the league have bemoaned the strain on their limited squad depth when adding games to the schedule. Though a more balanced approach to mid-week games softened the blow in 2023, a number of clubs seemed to prioritize simple rotation over going far in the Challenge Cup. It’s hard to fault managers for favoring the prizes of the regular season, but those decisions did produce an element of viewership fatigue.

That fatigue extended to players themselves, as travel and TV issues pervaded what was supposed to be the crowning week for the Cup. A 12:30 ET broadcast slot on CBS strained the concept of the top seed hosting the final — OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer noted on social media that if the West Coast club had taken the top spot, they would have been forced to travel cross-country on short rest anyway. The Courage, who did end up hosting the final, then dealt with a short turnaround to drum up local support for an extra game put on the schedule at the last minute.

As fate would have it, the Challenge Cup never made it all the way through its network TV time slot, with a weather delay pushing the match to digital streaming services. The NWSL should realistically look for more programming than a one 22-game season, but as it negotiates new broadcasting deals, this competitive sacrifice at the hands of short-term TV goals would be better left in the past.

The Challenge Cup also has its uses

Despite lingering logistical problems, the Challenge Cup did showcase its value during a major tournament year. The NWSL took just two match weekends off during the World Cup, but the Cup allowed them to avoid regular season matches from July 10 to Aug. 17, meaning that international stars missed far fewer season games than in previous cycles.

The flexibility provided by the Challenge Cup has brought about one of the closest Shield and playoff races in history. Instead of teams being punished for losing their stars during the World Cup, they got to welcome those players back with the league table mostly intact. That approach preserves the integrity of the competition and keeps top players who don’t want to miss their national team camps or club games happy.

The Challenge Cup also provides an NWSL-sanctioned opportunity to win another trophy, which should be prioritized even if the format of the tournament changes in the future. Players often talk about domestic or regional competitions as a draw of playing in Europe, and the NWSL will need to continue to keep pace with their international counterparts. Opening a Cup up to lower-tier club teams in the U.S., or even expanding to other regions in the Western Hemisphere (particularly Liga MX Femenil), would help add prestige to trophy opportunities outside of the NWSL Shield and championship title.

The NWSL doesn’t have the ability to create a Champions League on its own: Concacaf would have to help make that a reality. But they can look to create competitive variety for fans to enjoy and cater to advantages elsewhere. Racing Louisville’s run to the Cup final is one that clubs should be trying to emulate, rather than shy away from.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Manaka Matsukubo made history during the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup – in more ways than one.

Matsukubo, 19, a midfielder for the North Carolina Courage, became the youngest player to start in a game in the tournament. And then, on Saturday, after the Courage’s 2-0 win over Racing Louisville in the final, she was named Challenge Cup MVP.

After the game, Matsukubo was asked through a translator how she felt. But instead of waiting for the translation, Matsukubo beamed and offered her answer: “I’m so happy.” Her teammates erupted in joy around her.

The midfielder scored in the 54th minute of the final, icing the win after Kerolin found the back of the net in the 28th minute.

Matsukubo scored on an assist from teammate Tess Boade, who broke through the line and sent a through ball to Manaka. Manaka one-timed the reception and chipped the ball into the top right corner of the net, becoming the youngest player ever to score in the Challenge Cup.

The Courage acquired Matsukubo on loan from Mynavi Sendai of the Japanese WE League for a fee. She had scored four goals and added an assist during the 2022-23 WE League season.

“We are very excited to add another young talent to the team. Manaka is one of the young up and coming talents in world football. A player with a simple approach to the game and ability to unlock opposition through the thirds,” Courage head coach Sean Nahas said in a press release announcing her acquisition.

The North Carolina Courage will host Racing Louisville at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday with the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup title on the line. Catch all the action on CBS.

While this year could mark the end of the Challenge Cup tournament as we know it, the prize pool stands at a hefty $1 million — including $10,000 per player to the winning team.

Racing Louisville secured their spot in the championship match with a 1-0 win over OL Reign, while the Courage got a 1-0 win of their own over the Kansas City Current to make their second consecutive Challenge Cup final.

What to know about Racing Louisville

  • This is their first Challenge Cup final. The No. 4 seed heading into the semifinals, the club finished in second place in its group but snuck into the knockout stage.
  • Savannah DeMelo leads Challenge Cup scoring for Louisville with three goals and one assist in the tournament through just four Challenge Cup games played. The midfielder missed several group-stage matches while playing for the U.S. women’s national team at the 2023 World Cup.
  • Racing Louisville were without captain Jaelin Howell and defender Carson Pickett for Wednesday’s semifinal but still managed a win by capitalizing on a turnover in the 28th minute. Kirsten Davis scored the game’s lone goal. “She has been taking one step forward,” head coach Kim Björkegren said of the development of Davis. “She has better control over everything: the ball and the target play. She can keep the ball for us much stronger.”
  • Katie Lund has been outstanding in net throughout the Challenge Cup, recording three clean sheets, which is tied for the league lead in the tournament.
  • This will be Racing’s third cup final but first in an NWSL competition. The club won the first-ever Women’s Cup in 2021 before losing last year’s Women’s Cup final. “It’s been such a ride,” Lund said of the team’s journey. “We’ve been up and we’ve been down. But I truly believe this is the best team we’ve ever had. The belief is there. The support that we have is incredible. And we felt that tonight. So, just the energy around this club right now is really positive and we hope we can move that to Saturday.”

What to know about North Carolina

  • This is North Carolina’s second-straight Challenge Cup final appearance, with the Courage having won their first title in 2022. “I said to them after the game, it was a moment. It was a moment that we’ll remember,” said Courage head coach Sean Nahas following the team’s semifinal. “It was a true test of character for our group. We knew we had it in us.”
  • Brianna Pinto scored the game winner in the semifinal, which proved to be the game’s only goal, in the 96th minute. “I think we did a really great job re-setting our culture,” Pinto said of the team’s overhaul in the last year in the wake of the scandal involving former coach Paul Riley. “Everyone has bought into it.”
  • Kerolin was named the MVP of the 2022 final, a 2-1 victory over the Washington Spirit. She has been quiet in this year’s campaign but has generated four shots on goal through four matches, which is tied for second on the squad.
  • Brittany Ratcliffe leads the team with three goals through six games played. Haley Hopkins and Olivia Wingate have the most points, with two goals and two assists each.
  • The Courage will play host in this year’s Challenge Cup final. “For us to have the opportunity to win a trophy on Saturday is massive, especially at home and especially for this young group,” Nahas said. “It’s a moment that’s only going to help us grow and improve and believe in ourselves.”

The NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals are almost here, with four teams set to face off on Wednesday for a spot in Saturday’s championship game.

This will reportedly be the last iteration of the Challenge Cup, with the NWSL planning to abandon the tournament in 2024, according to The Equalizer. Thus, Kansas City, North Carolina, OL Reign and Racing Louisville are all looking to win what could be the final Challenge Cup in NWSL history.

Semifinal #1: Kansas City Current vs. North Carolina Courage

Wednesday @ 8 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

The Current and Courage are both going into their Challenge Cup semifinal matchup with some lumps. Kansas City is 1-1 in its last two games after a big 1-0 win over OL Reign on Aug. 18, while North Carolina has gone winless in its last four games. The Courage were on the verge of a win against Gotham FC on Saturday, before they squandered a two-goal lead late to draw 3-3.

In the Challenge Cup, North Carolina put on a clinic in back-to-back games in July — a 6-0 win over the Spirit and a 5-0 win over Orlando.

Still, recent history appears to favor Kansas City. The teams are tied 1-1 in their regular season series, with the Current taking the most recent game. Veteran forward Kristen Hamilton also came up big for the 2022 NWSL runners-up in their last Challenge Cup game, scoring a brace in a 3-0 win over Racing Louisville.

Prediction: Kansas City 2, North Carolina 1

Semifinal #2: OL Reign vs. Racing Louisville

Wednesday @ 10 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

Racing Louisville is riding high heading into their semifinal match against OL Reign. They haven’t lost a game since a 3-0 Challenge Cup defeat to Kansas City on Aug. 5, and they haven’t lost an NWSL regular season game since June. On Saturday, they came from behind to defeat No. 2 Portland 2-1. With most of their players back from the World Cup, Racing Louisville could be a surprise contender in the Challenge Cup.

OL Reign, meanwhile, lost three in a row before beating the Orlando Pride on Saturday. After registering wins over San Diego and Portland in the Challenge Cup, they enter the knockout rounds as the No. 1 seed.

Each game between Louisville and OL Reign this season resulted in a 2-2 draw, so expect this to be an even matchup and a game that goes down to the wire.

Prediction: OL Reign 2, Racing Louisville 2 (LOU wins on penalties 4-3)

Championship: Racing Louisville vs. Kansas City

Saturday @ 12:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Kansas City has the knockout-round pedigree, but Racing Louisville has the momentum and could ride it all the way to the Challenge Cup trophy. Louisville will lean on the USWNT’s Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell to set the tone in the midfield and spur the attack in a hard-fought game.

Prediction: Racing Louisville 1, Kansas City 0

MVP pick: Savannah DeMelo