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NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics

‘A galvanising force for a talented squad’: The tactics that secured North Carolina Courage a second straight Challenge Cup title – tactical analysis

With three regular-season rounds left to play in the NWSL, the playoffs race is starting to heat up as supporters grow anxious over their teams’ chances of making the top six.

However, for fans of North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville, the league took a firm backseat at the weekend, focusing instead on the NWSL Challenge Cup final and the opportunity of securing the first silverware available this season. They had different motivations going into the match, with North Carolina seeking to defend their title whilst Louisville were chasing a first-ever trophy for the club (they have only been in existence for three years), and many expected a cagey and unforgiving affair for that reason.

After 90 minutes, though, North Carolina emerged victorious, with them lifting the trophy at their home ground, Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park, and there will not be many who feel that it was an undeserved win. They looked more innovative and vastly superior in all areas of the game. This tactical analysis will examine why that was the case and why Louisville had no answer to them at times and could not settle into their usual rhythm.


NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics

North Carolina Courage made just one change from the team that edged out Kansas City Current at Children’s Mercy Park in midweek, with forward Tyler Lussi dropping to the bench and being replaced by Haley Hopkins, who had replaced the former Portland Thorns and Angel City forward late on in that match. That meant that Brianna Pinto, who had scored the goal that had sealed North Carolina’s place in the final, was once again forced to make do with a place among the substitutes, whilst exciting on-loan MyNavi Sendai Ladies midfielder Manaka Matsukubo was again given a start behind Tess Boade as her stock continues to grow.

For Racing Louisville, it was the same starting XI that saw off OL Reign at Lumen Field on the same day that took to the field in the final, with head coach Kim Björkegren opting for continuity rather than disruption. That meant that Finland defender Elli Pikkujämsä was once again deployed in front of the backline in the absence of injured captain Jaelin Howell, whilst former Birmingham City Women left-back Rebecca Holloway continued to deputise for Carson Pickett, who had also missed the semi-final win after picking up her own injury problem.

Controlling the midfield

To those watching in the stands and at home, it was clear to see from the early stages just how dominant North Carolina Courage were going to be in the final, and what it really came down to was the battle for the midfield, which Sean Nahas’ side won very early on.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina Courage played with a flexible shape when they had the ball.

Nahas has been slowly implementing a possession-orientated style of play this season, and it has really come into its own as they have risen up the division to lead the NWSL table at one point.

However, to make it work to its full capability, Nahas has needed players in his side who are tactically flexible and who can flit between systems and shapes without needing too much adjustment. That detail was critical in this game, with North Carolina’s team shape constantly altering between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 (or a variation of it) whenever they had the ball, with Matsukubo dropping back to play closer to captain Denise O’Sullivan and Japan midfielder Narumi Miura whilst Kerolin and Hopkins pushed forward to join Boade in the front line.

When in this shape, the Courage had a really good balance around the field, and distinct passing routes were clear, and that allowed them to play with an intensity and speed that kept Racing Louisville on the back foot and prevented them from getting into their own transitional flow. In this case, it only took two passes for the ball to travel from Republic of Ireland star O’Sullivan deep inside the Courage’s half to Kerolin. Matsukubo provided the link and the key pass to exploit the gap Louisville had left open.

Even though this chance didn’t lead to anything, with Kerolin thwarted by Louisville goalkeeper Katie Lund, it did provide two critical tactical points that need to be noted. Firstly, North Carolina’s possession game plan would focus on progressive passes at speed during transitions. Secondly, Matsukubo would have a vital role in making the final passes and connecting the forwards with the rest of the team, which she did well during the semi-final win against Kansas, which Nahas clearly wanted to rely on again.

The young Japanese midfielder is seen by many as a future star of the game in her country, with her being ranked alongside the likes of Chelsea Women forward Maika Hamano in the hopes of fans back home. It is not difficult to see why she is held in such high regard and why Nahas wanted to start her in these two crucial games when assessing her contributions on the field over the last week.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
Tess Boade played a key role for North Carolina Courage in midfield and attack.

However, Nahas was not only content with having her, O’Sullivan and Miura patrolling the central third, with Boade also being asked to drop back into the middle on occasion. This allowed the Courage to create a box in the midfield and to make it even more difficult for Louisville to get on the ball, with the additional passing options making it harder for the Kentucky side to predict where the ball would go next.

This had a significant impact on other areas of the North Carolina side, too, such as the forward line where it allowed both Kerolin and Hopkins to cut inside and to operate more centrally when North Carolina were moving up the field, and this was something that the former really benefitted from as it gave her the freedom to play in her favoured central attacking role and to make the runs behind the Louisville back line that she has executed so many times during the 2023 campaign.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
Tess Boade’s heatmap for North Carolina Courage in the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup final.

However, she has Boade to thank on this occasion for those spaces being so open because the midfielder was crucial in taking opponents out of her way and giving her the time that she needed to cause endless amounts of damage. As this heatmap shows, whilst she started at the top of the field, she had an impact in so many areas of the field. She constantly looked to get on the ball wherever she felt that she could be of use, and this movement proved essential to Louisville being unable to contain North Carolina whenever they had the ball.

Whilst the idea of using an attacker to disrupt opposing setups is not new to the Courage’s tactics, it is interesting that Nahas opted to give the role to Boade here, with it normally being Kerolin who manipulates defenders into leaving spaces open for her teammates to exploit.

However, perhaps because of her natural pace and attacking threat and perhaps because of the Brazil forward being heavily linked with Manchester United Women this summer, Nahas opted to use Boade for this vital role. Maybe it is with an eye to how the team could continue to play with the same mentality and style if Kerolin does opt to move on before the WSL transfer window closes.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina Courage pressed Racing Louisville when they didn’t have the ball.

It was not all about what North Carolina did in possession, though, as they also had a clear plan for when they didn’t have the ball, with the team deploying an aggressive press that was designed to force mistakes and to allow them to win the ball high up the field.

To make this as effective and efficient as possible, there was another obvious strategy in force here, with players having specific roles and needing to execute each stage at the right time to make it impossible for Louisville to beat their attempts to close the ball down.

The first phase saw the player leading the line, in this case, Boade, moving forward to apply pressure and force the ball to be passed earlier than Louisville might have liked, whilst the second stage saw the three players behind move forward on different trajectories once that pass had been made, ensuring that they covered as much of the pitch as possible.

With all four players involved and taking territory away from Louisville at that point, it was then a case of simply waiting for the error to come, and, in this case, it didn’t take long as the pass back to former New Zealand defender Abby Erceg was overhit and allowed Kerolin to regain the ball. Whilst this again didn’t lead to anything, it did show that North Carolina were playing with a lot of clarity in this game, and each player knew what they needed to do both with and without the ball.

Creating space in the final third

Once they had secured control of the central third, it then became about how North Carolina Courage could build from that and create chances inside Racing Louisville’s third, and that was not as easy to do on paper as it might have been previously, with Björkegren working hard over the last couple of years to firm up his team’s rearguard.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina Courage’s wide attackers played a key role in making the pitch as big as possible.

The initial thinking from Nahas and North Carolina was clearly around being expansive and using the wings to tease the back line apart, and that was one reason that he opted to use Hopkins instead of Lussi for this match, with Hopkins more of a winger than an inside forward, whilst Lussi likes to play more centrally and to score goals. It was a big call but proved to be correct as the game went on, with both Hopkins and Kerolin making the pitch as big as possible and demonstrating discipline not to cut inside when there would have been a significant temptation for them to do so.

With the wings now occupied, the Courage could bring their double pivot of O’Sullivan and Miura forward and involve them in the attacking play, with both having the ability to advance into the half spaces and to create extra numbers and a more sizeable offensive presence when the Courage were on the front foot, just as Miura is doing here.

When they did so, it once again allowed North Carolina to manipulate their opponents into contorting themselves into different shapes as they tried to negate both the central and wide threats, and that was always going to be impossible given the players that were on the field for the Courage. As a result, one or the other was often left unmarked, which meant that Nahas’ side could constantly pose a threat regardless of how Louisville set up against them.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina Courage adapted and found new ways to break Racing Louisville down as the game went on.

That theme of forcing Louisville to leave gaps open was evident in other ways, too. However, the Courage did need to find new ways to break their opponents down as the game went on, with Björkegren trying to improve his side’s resilience and to make them tougher to beat.

The first sign that North Carolina would need to tweak their tactics was just after they had taken the lead, with Louisville forced to withdraw Northern Ireland international Holloway due to injury and to introduce Maddie Ann Pokorny to the game.

After coming on, Pokorny was given the right-back role, whilst Lauren Milliet shifted across to the left side. Still, the former is more of an attacker than a defender and so tended to push further forward than Milliet and Holloway had done. As a result, Louisville’s defensive line resembled more of a back three after Holloway’s withdrawal, with Milliet operating closer to Julia Lester and Erceg whilst Pokorny played ahead of them.

For the Courage, this meant that those central spaces they had had so much joy in beforehand were not as readily available, so they needed to devise a new way of creating space in the defensive line. What they did was really clever, and it involved Boade continuing to drop back, but the speed of their passes slowed down slightly.

By delaying the transfers from player to player, the Courage hoped Louisville would be tempted into moving forward to press the ball, allowing them to play it around them and take them out of the game. It was a tactic that worked to perfection, with Erceg here moving out of line and leaving a gap open between Lester and Milliet, and that enabled Matsukubo to combine with right-back Ryan Williams and to set up Boade to run between them and to test Lund in the Louisville goal.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
With their delayed pass tactics, North Carolina Courage created plenty of problems for Racing Louisville.

On that occasion, Boade’s run didn’t come to anything, but North Carolina persevered with the tactic, and it paid off for them; with another situation, they made a delayed pass, leading to their second goal.

In this case, Boade was playing the role of the disruptor, with her holding onto the ball and waiting for Louisville to take the bait, whilst Matsukubo took over as the runner moving through the defensive line. Again, everything worked for them as Erceg once again failed to hold her position and allowed the Japanese player to send Boade’s neat pass into the back of the net, which showcased how North Carolina had a solid game plan but were also adaptable to what their opponents did, which was crucial in them constantly creating space and securing the victory.

Containing Racing Louisville’s attacking threat

It would be wrong to assume, however, that North Carolina Courage had everything their own way because there were times when Racing Louisville managed to break through their lines and access spaces inside their third.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina Courage doubled up in the wide areas when Racing Louisville had possession inside their third.

However, when they did manage to get into dangerous areas, Björkegren’s side was let down by their setup, with Paige Monaghan deployed on the left side of the attack, but who is someone who prefers to deliver balls into the middle rather than driving inside on her own.

Usually, this is not a problem as key midfielders like Savannah DeMelo and Ary Borges move forward to offer passing options and to transfer the ball around the field, but North Carolina were alive to this and worked hard to limit their influences on proceedings. In this example, DeMelo has possession on the far side of the pitch but has been closed down by Kerolin and Williams, who have doubled up to create a numerical overload and stop her connecting with her teammates.

North Carolina did it in all channels throughout this match by teaming up on the wings and marking tightly in the middle, and preventing their opponents from having the freedom to play their own game was undoubtedly crucial in ensuring that they ended up on the winning side after 90 minutes.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
Racing Louisville did test North Carolina Courage after making a few tactical alterations.

Louisville did recognise the problem and attempted to solve it after the break, with Björkegren introducing Denmark striker Nadia Nadim from the bench partway through the second half for Monaghan, and the experienced former PSG Féminine player did make a big difference as she allowed Kirsten Davis to play on her favoured left side of the attack.

Davis is at her best when allowed to make inverted runs from the wing and to take players on in 1-v-1 duels, but she had been restricted from doing so up until this point due to her being used as the central target player. However, Louisville started to test North Carolina in new ways with her on the wing. Davis took the ball inside the pitch here and sent it between Malia Berkely and Emily Fox for South Africa forward Thembi Kgatlana to run onto.

Even though Fox made a crucial recovery tackle here to end the chance prematurely, this still showed how Louisville did have positive moments of their own and should be praised for how they adapted during the game. There will be some wondering what could have been if they had started with this combination of players.

NWSL Challenge Cup 2023: North Carolina Courage v Racing Louisville - tactical analysis tactics
North Carolina Courage were generally robust and organised when out of possession.

Nevertheless, despite those occasional tests, North Carolina did remain largely resolute out of possession, and it again came down to their players understanding their roles and working hard to be in the right places at the right time to make themselves as difficult to break down as possible.

This situation highlights that point, with Borges looking to move forward from a deeper position but faced with three lines of North Carolina players between her and the goal. She knows that sending the ball forward would not lead to anything as the time it would take in transit would give North Carolina a chance to win it and end the attack.

As a result, she is forced to pass sideways towards Milliet to simply retain possession, and, even though this was only one pass, what it highlighted was how robust the Courage were when without the ball and how Louisville, despite appearing capable of dragging themselves back into the game, were ultimately second best in every department.


In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup final between North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville, breaking down the tactics that helped the former to a second consecutive title and the reasons that the latter were unable to get into the game.

It should be remembered that North Carolina did have an advantage here, with both sides being on the road for their semi-finals but Nahas’ side not being required to travel to another state for the final, and there was talk in the build-up to the game about the effect that would have on the Louisville players when it came to sleep patterns and being in the right frame of mind for the match.

However, whilst there were instances when it was clear that the travel had taken its toll on Björkegren’s side’s energy levels, the simple fact remained that North Carolina were a cut above them when it came to the two teams’ game plans, with them showing strategic superiority and never allowing Louisville to settle into their own rhythm, and, for that, they deserve enormous credit and the trophy. With them still in the hunt for more silverware between now and the end of the season, there is hope among their fans that this success could be a galvanising force in their bid for a first league title in four years.

Both teams will return to league action at the weekend, with them still competing for places in the playoffs as they attempt to elongate their campaigns beyond the end of the regular matches. Louisville face a vital clash at home as Houston Dash visit the Lynn Family Stadium, whilst North Carolina will travel to the Exploria Stadium as they take on Orlando Pride.