In the 58th minute of Saturday's NWSL Challenge Cup final between the North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville, Tess Boade played a skillful little pass to Manaka Matsukubo as she was dashing into the penalty area. Matsukubo had time to carve out the perfect shot on goal, but did not need it -- she met the ball before it hit the ground, and sent a powerful curved shot straight into the goal to seal a 2-0 win for the Courage and game day MVP honors in the process.
The goal was just one part of her standout performance in the Courage's Challenge Cup triumph. The champions were in fine attacking form with 14 shots, 11 on target, an expected goals tally of 1.16 and a passing accuracy of 80% in the attacking third. Matsukubo was a presence during her 71-minute shift, taking two shots and landing both on target and creating one chance. She also took 61 touches and completed 88.6% of the 44 passes she took, including 83.3% in the attacking third. The midfielder left nearly everyone in awe by the time she came off the field, her coach included.
Golazo Starting XI Newsletter
Get your Soccer Fix from Around the Globe
Your ultimate guide to the Beautiful Game as our experts take you beyond the pitch and around the globe with news that matters.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
"I don't think anyone else would've thought about hitting that first time out of the air. I think it shows the level of IQ that she has," Courage head coach Sean Nahas said after the match.
Matsukubo's journey to a Challenge Cup title and MVP trophy makes the accolades all the more impressive. The 19-year-old only made her professional debut this March for Japanese side Mynavi Sendai and has only played four matches for the Courage since she signed for the NWSL club in July. Perhaps even more impressive? She has arguably only scratched the surface on her potential.
"I don't even think she's even gotten comfortable yet," Nahas noted.
Despite her lack of familiarity with her teammates and the league, Matsukubo is already demonstrating an ability to unlock the Courage's true potential. The teen could continue her upward trajectory at just the right time -- regular season play resumes next weekend, and the Courage are still in the race for the NWSL Shield and look likely to secure a playoff berth.
"She's an energizer," Nahas said about her skillset. "She's 19 and we brought her here because her ability to get into the pockets and turn and run at back lines."
Don't miss CBS Sports Golazo Network's Morning Footy, now in podcast form! Our crew brings you all the news, views, highlights and laughs you need to follow the Beautiful Game in every corner of the globe, every Monday-Friday all year long
The head coach also complimented her talent for "to link up, her ability to wiggle out of trouble, her ability to get on the half turn and to pass" and cited those skills as reasons why the Courage signed her.
Nahas also noted some areas of improvement but has full belief that Matsukubo will make the necessary adjustments.
"I think she runs a lot and we don't want her running so much," he said. "If you notice, there's so many times where that weak side half space is free and she runs beyond it and we can't find her the ball and that's the link between her and the next lines. so just having her be a little bit more patient, let the ball find her instead of going and seeking it. That's sometimes just the maturity thing … I think as she gets more comfortable and adjusts to the speed, just like Narumi [Miura] did, I think she's only going to find better spaces and create more opportunities for her and her teammates."
Matsukubo might be the standout of Nahas' rebuild at the Courage. The longtime assistant coach is in his second full season as the head coach of the team and took over the reins after disgraced ex-coach Paul Riley was fired in September 2021 following allegations of sexual coercion. Nahas admitted that he did not enjoy his first season at the helm nearly as much as his second, which has seen the team excel with a handful of new players.
Matsukubo is one of three players who started the Challenge Cup final that are in their first season with the club, including Miura and U.S. women's national team defender Emily Fox. Nahas said the newcomers were recruited with a specific style of play in mind, and that the likes of Matsukubo, Miura, and Rikako Kobayashi, who has yet to make her debut, are helping him truly transform the Courage's on-field identity.
"if you look at who we brought in, where they come from, their background … they understand the positional play aspect of what we want to play," he said. "We didn't really have to teach it, we just want to teach them certain things of how we want to play and really have had to teach the players from the states to adjust a little bit. If you look at so many of the players that we have on our roster, they came from the way we used to play, which is great for that particular roster, but now we've had to re-train them. [Kaleigh Kurtz] made a comment about it yesterday in our pre-game conference about [how] it's just fun for them because they know where everyone's going to be. They just enjoy it, so there's a belief."
Matsukubo is poised to deliver plenty of fun in the games to come, both for her teammates and onlookers alike.
"We're so pleased to have her in this league," Nahas said, "because I think it's another star in the making."