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Why a teenage phenom has NC Courage believing they can win more NWSL championships

When NC Courage forward Kerolin Nicoli scored the opening goal in the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup final, midfielder Manaka Matsukubo was the first teammate to find her and celebrated by leaping into the Brazilian’s wide-open arms.

It made sense that Manaka was right there. Since the Courage acquired the teenager on loan from Mynavi Sendai of the Japanese WE League in July, Manaka’s been streaking all over WakeMed Soccer Park. In fact, according to head coach Sean Nahas, she’s running a bit too much for the coaching staff’s liking.

And, with the help of the 19-year-old phenom and UKG NWSL Challenge Cup MVP, the NC Courage is believing again.

After an 8-7-3 start to the season, the Courage were crowned back-to-back UKG NWSL Challenge Cup Champions following a 2-0 win over Racing Louisville FC on Sept. 9 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. Manaka recorded the Courage’s second goal of the game — and her first since coming to North Carolina — to put the game away for her football club.

The NC Courage is now the first NWSL team to win multiple Challenge Cups after the inaugural Challenge Cup was established in 2020. The program’s seven NWSL trophies — three NWSL shields, two NWSL championships and two Challenge Cup championships, to be exact — are the most of any club in the league’s history.

Moreover, Manaka and this recent victory have energized a Courage team that ranks fourth out of 12 NWSL teams.

“I’m really proud of the group and proud of our team,” Nahas said following the Challenge Cup final. “Where we’ve started and where we are now, we have ourselves believing. I feel good about it, let’s put it that way.”

How could you not feel good about your chances at the shield with a player like Manaka? Let’s cue up her goal against Racing Louisville FC for reference.

Sep 6, 2023; Kansas City, KS, USA; North Carolina Courage midfielder Manaka Matsukubo (34) controls the ball as Kansas City Current defender Elizabeth Ball (7) defends during the second half at Children’s Mercy Park.
Sep 6, 2023; Kansas City, KS, USA; North Carolina Courage midfielder Manaka Matsukubo (34) controls the ball as Kansas City Current defender Elizabeth Ball (7) defends during the second half at Children’s Mercy Park.

In the 54th minute, NC Courage forward Tess Boade bought some time by drawing the defense toward her and flicked the ball forward to Manaka. Rather than take a moment to gather her feet, Manaka immediately unleashed her momentum on the ball and took advantage of the gap in front of her, knocking a shot into the back-right corner of the goal and just over the outstretched arms of Louisville goalkeeper Katie Lund.

Manaka’s movement and passing ability indicate a high ceiling for the young player, especially considering Nahas feels the 19-year-old hasn’t “even gotten comfortable yet.”

“We brought her here because of her ability to get in the pockets and turn and run at back lines,” Nahas said after the Challenge Cup final. “But, if you notice, there’s so many times where that weakside half-space is free and she runs beyond it and we can’t find her the ball — and that’s the length between her and the next line. So, just having her be a little bit more patient and letting the ball find her instead of going and seeking it. And sometimes, that’s just a maturity thing.”

Manaka is one of several young players the Courage have recently added into the fold of the program, who have gelled with more established players like Nicoli.

After the Challenge Cup final, NC Courage defender Ryan Williams said the team has embraced Manaka, a testament to the program’s welcoming culture. NC Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy said she was impressed with Manaka’s ability to jump in immediately with the Courage, and said the teenager has “such a bright future ahead of her.”

The young phenom has continued her success since the Challenge Cup, adding another goal to her season total in the NC Courage’s recent 2-1 loss to the Orlando Pride on Sept. 17.

While the 19-year-old still has some areas for improvement, it’s clear that Manaka will have a key role as the Courage turn their focus toward capturing the program’s fourth NWSL shield.