Nearly halfway through this season’s UKG NWSL Challenge Cup Racing Louisville, OL Reign and the North Carolina Courage are in strong positions.
NWSL Challenge Cup news: Racing Louisville ripping through Central Division, unbeaten through three matches
With another convincing shutout, Racing Louisville becomes the only team that failed to drop a single point through the first 270 minutes of Challenge Cup soccer. Last season in this competition, the Kentucky side had just one win. They tripled it before the second round robin of play between divisional opponents began. Even up two in the second half and in full control at home against the Houston Dash, Kim Björkegren’s side wanted more. From the 6′ when Louisville had a goal called back, Sam Laity knew his side was in trouble.
There seems to be a newfound edge to this team in 2023. Everything has looked smooth in the buildup play for Racing. In the last two wins in this tournament, the Kentucky side has accumulated a pass accuracy over 80 percent.
The first goal where former Ohio State star Kayla Fischer fired it past Emily Alvarado was the perfect example of the side’s fluid passing game. With Carson Pickett and Lauren Milliet firing in crosses, and Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell making their presence known in the middle of the pitch, there are so many threats the opponent has to worry about. On the defensive end, Björkegren’s team has been more than solid, allowing just two shots on target in the last two matches combined.
The beginning of the campaign was less than ideal, but this club was able to stay mentally tough and turn it around. Led by midfielder DeMelo, Racing has netted eight goals from a 6.9 xG. DeMelo is one of two players along with Kansas City Current’s Debinha to have three or more goals so far in this competition.
Louisville is only getting stronger with Emina Ekic returning on Wednesday night from a fractured ankle that she suffered on loan in Australia during the NWSL offseason. Racing does not compete in the Challenge Cup again until July 21, but performances like these in cup competitions must give a team the right kind of confidence to push forward in the league.
NWSL Challenge Cup news: Wingate steals three points for Courage as NC goes top of East Division
Once Kerolin came onto the pitch in the second half, the game on Wednesday at Audi Field completely shifted. With the game tied at one apiece in the 62′, both sides were giving it all they could as the top spot of the East Division was up for grabs.
North Carolina Courage had not won a match in this competition until Olivia Wingate slotted home the winner in the second minute of stoppage time against the Washington Spirit. The rookie had shown flashes of quality so far through her first campaign, but Wednesday’s goal was the first of her professional career.
Some scratched their heads when she was selected as early as she was in the draft, but through the first few months, she has proven a lot of people wrong. Two 2023 draft selections in Haley Hopkins and Wingate combined for the winning goal. That is something special. With the franchise letting two of its best attacking players go during the offseason, that goal is a statement of the bright future ahead.
NJ/NY Gotham FC has the opportunity to go top of the group table with a result next week at Exploria Stadium, but for now, that spot belongs to the Courage. Even when North Carolina went down against the Spirit, they were never out of it. The five substitutions in the second half revived the Courage. Three of them created the final breakthrough. The East Division is far from decided, but Wingate’s stoppage time goal puts North Carolina in perfect position with two out of its last three cup contests in Cary.
NWSL Challenge Cup news: OL Reign sit top of West Division with massive fixture ahead v Thorns
The West Division was the only group that was not in action this week. Currently, Laura Harvey’s OL Reign have the semifinal spot locked up on seven points through three matches, but the two clubs behind them have only played two contests. Canadian international Jordyn Huitema leads the Reign in the goals department with two which included netting an important breakthrough goal against Angel City in match week one.
The Seattle side has competed only against the California teams, taking on ACFC twice as the Portland Thorns await next Wednesday at Providence Park. On the left flank for the Reign in their dominant victory over San Diego last time out in this tournament, Tziarra King was sensational. King never backed down from a challenge, leading her team in progressive carries while assisting Ryanne Brown for the game’s opening goal. Her spark along with the Wave’s inconsistencies in the backline propelled Harvey’s team to the top of the group.
Their quality was on full display on the final day of May at Snapdragon Stadium as Casey Stoney rested the majority of her stars. The Seattle side may only have five goals, but no team has challenged the opponent’s goalkeeper more frequently than the Reign. An over 43 percent shots on-target percentage is better than any club so far in the Challenge Cup. In addition to the threat up top, Harvey’s side is the only club to pitch a clean sheet in each match. Most of that is thanks to Claudia Dickey who is tied with Kailen Sheridan and Alyssa Naeher for the competition lead in total saves with nine.
Upcoming Challenge Cup fixtures:
Wednesday, June 28:
- NJ/NY Gotham FC at Orlando Pride, 7:00 pm EST
- OL Reign at Portland Thorns, 10:30 pm EST
- San Diego Wave at Angel City FC, 10:30 pm EST