We’re going American this week… ahead of the NWSL playoffs we’re reflecting on the North Carolina Courage’s campaign.
The ‘Shield’, which is awarded to the team with the best regular season record, has already made its way back to the catchily titled Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park – for a third consecutive year. Here, from across the ‘pond’, D2B looks at five matches that were central to the Courage retaining their title.
Away at Washington Spirit – Won 2-1 (Sat 29 Jun)
The Courage hadn’t begun the season as expected after such a dominant 2018 campaign. Although they achieved good results against Orlando and Houston out of the gate, they couldn’t beat unfancied Sky Blue or Utah, and had then been found wanting against both Reign FC and the Chicago Red Stars.
Going into the Washington match, Courage were 5th (of 9) in the table with a 3-2-4 record (wins/losses/ties). The Spirit, meanwhile, were sat on top of the pile. Non-USWNT players were starting to return from World Cup duties – not least the talented Brazilian Debinha – so this would be a good time for Carolina to send out a message that they were regrouping…
VIDEO LINK: NCC at Washington Spirit…
Early chances went begging through Lynn Williams and Debinha. Then Spirit keeper Aubrey Bledsoe saved well from distance.
In first half stoppage time the Courage would get their break. Debinha was fouled in the penalty box and although her spot kick was saved the attacker stayed composed to knock in the rebound.
Dorian Bailey should have equalised for the hosts just after half time and Courage keeper Katelyn Rowland made a superb save from Ashley Hatch. They were misses that were to prove costly.
On 53 minutes the Spirit imploded when Courage striker Lynn Williams robbed a defender and set up Leah Pruitt, who had the freedom of Maryland to pick her spot.
Washington rallied late on in front of 3,481 fans, scoring with eight minutes left when Crystal Thomas got on the end of a long throw set-piece. Hatch had one more effort which Rowland brilliantly saved, but it would have been ruled out for offside anyway.
Home vs Houston Dash – Won 5-2 (Fri 5 Jul)
This match was played two days before the US Women’s National Team would contest and win the World Cup Final in France. The best-of-the-best were about to return to domestic league duties, so every player on show would want to make a big impression to keep their spot on the team.
The Dash came into the match on the back of a defeat to Carolina’s fierce title rivals Portland Thorns, so Courage Head Coach Paul Riley would have got a good look at how to beat them. And beat them they did, with Kristen Hamilton scoring a league-record-equalling four times and Lynn Williams making it a five star show in front of 5,066 spectators…
VIDEO LINK: NCC host the Dash…
Courage got a fair amount of joy down both flanks early on. Right back Merritt Mathias put a cross on a plate for Hamilton to stab home inside six minutes. The forward would then latch on to Jaelene Hinkle’s fine ball into the left channel on 18 minutes, cutting inside a defender and hitting the top corner.
Kristie Mewis got one back for the Dash, capitalising on some sloppiness in possession, but just after the half hour it was 3-1. Lynn Williams raced on to blocked clearance, beat her defender for pace and drove into the keeper’s top right-hand corner.
Houston would make it a first half gunfight with another strike just before the break. Canadian international Sophie Schmidt found Kyah Simon and she slotted from just inside the penalty box.
The ‘Goal of the Week’ competition between the Courage strikers continued unabated into the second half with Hamilton spinning her marker and sealing her hattrick with a composed finish. The rout was completed on 71 minutes following some Debinha trickery. She found Hamilton on the right of the penalty area and the forward cut inside and despatched left footed.
Away at Portland Thorns – Lost 1-2 (Sun 11 Aug)
It might seem counter-intuitive to put a defeat into this compilation, but this match would have a big influence on the Courage’s season afterwards, where they would go unbeaten until the Shield was secured.
The occasion was a record breaker with the already well-supported Thorns taking it up a notch and welcoming 25,218 fans into Providence Park. But the match was as memorable for how North Carolina didn’t win it – spurned chances, two bizarre own goals and a certain woman in the Portland goal named Adrianna Franch.
The Thorns would move above Carolina in the rankings to 8-3-6 and must have thought this result would give them an important psychological edge heading into their last seven fixtures…
VIDEO LINK: A record breaking NWSL attendance
The visitors took the lead inside 4 minutes. Kristen Hamilton was played into space on the right and able to work a cross from a tight angle. As the Thorns defence tried to clear, Lynn Williams nicked in and teed up Crystal Dunn who wasn’t about to miss from 12 yards.
The Courage looked a lot stronger than Portland in the first period but without adding to their lead. Dunn would bring the very best out of Franch just before the before the break and this seemed to be the moment of inspiration that her Portland teammates needed to get on the front foot in the second half.
On 56 minutes the Thorns equalised. Full back Elizabeth Ball found herself in space on the right and engineered a cross that Stephanie Labbé looked set to catch. Merritt Mathias obviously didn’t hear the call and jumped into her keeper, who then palmed the ball into her own net. Cue pandemonium from the home fans.
Lynn Williams should have put the Courage back in front just past the hour but was denied by Franch from 6-yards.
Portland completed the comeback on 82 minutes. Canadian international legend Christine Sinclair had been having a relatively quiet game but found some space to fashion a cross from the left that caused sufficient confusion in the six-yard box to end up pinging off Abby Erceg into her own net. Thorns midfielder Hayley Raso looked like she was trying to claim it but was merely near the scene of the crime.
Now staring down the barrel of a defeat in a match they were controlling for long periods, against their main title rivals, the North Carolina Courage wrested control of the ball and cranked up the pressure. What they ran into was Franch having one of those big days. She saved brilliantly from Jess McDonald on 87 minutes and then from Hamilton as the clock ticked towards stoppage time.
Away at Portland Thorns – Won 6-0 (Wed 11 Sep)
Exactly one month later the top two matched up again at Providence Park.
Portland came into the game off a 1-0 defeat to the resurgent Utah Royals who had Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez finding their attacking groove, along with Captain Fantastic Becky Sauerbrunn who scored the all-important goal.
But Mark Parson’s side still had a two-point edge. Over 17,000 expectant fans turned up with the Rose City massive hoping for a definitive result in their chase for the regular season’s honours. North Carolina Courage, of course, had other ideas…
It hasn’t been particularly eyebrow-raising when the Courage have smashed up teams like Orlando or Houston this season – there’s a clear and visible gulf in quality. But dismantling the Portland Thorns, in Portland, with so much at stake, was a big moment and a turning point in the title race.
Debinha got the ball rolling on the quarter hour arriving to knock in Crystal Dunn’s cross from the right, after Jess McDonald had cleverly dummied it to move a defender out of the way.
They doubled their lead six minutes later. Dunn hit the upright from distance and Debinha’s attempted rebound skewed into Lynn Williams’ path and she converted from close range.
Williams then got her second and the Courage’s third half-volleying home after good work from Merritt Mathias on the right.
Portland’s Lindsey Horan had a chance to reduce the arrears before the interval but couldn’t get her header on target.
Normal service resumed just after the hour when Dunn arrived untracked at the back post to meet Jaelene Hinkle’s cross from the left.
It wasn’t long before Williams completed her hattrick. Debinha drove through midfield and played the pacy striker into the left channel. There was only going to be one outcome on a night like this and Williams finished emphatically.
Not to be outdone, substitute Kristen Hamilton put the cherry on the icing of the cake, chipping in from an angle on the left flank after more Debinha sorcery.
It was a massive result in more ways than one. By the time the Thorns were playing their next fixture, North Carolina had amassed 46 points to Portland’s 39. The game was up for the Pacific Northwesterners.
Away at Utah Royals – W 3-0 (Sat 21 Sep)
Only Chicago remained a realistic threat in the run in but, while Sam Kerr and co. were picking up victories, the Courage marched on relentlessly. They thrashed the Pride again and edged a very bad tempered 1-0 win over Houston Dash thanks to Sam Mewis’s 87th minute spot kick – awarded, not without some controversy, against Sam’s sister Kristie. This was also the match after which Merritt Mathias took to Twitter to lambast Houston’s Rachel Daly for directly causing her season-ending knee injury.
The Royals had enjoyed a good run in August and took this form into early September – beating Reign and Portland on the way – to put themselves back in playoff contention. But their sworn enemy, inconsistency, turned up for an eminently winnable match against the Houston Dash, and they faltered. The ‘must win’ pressure on Utah in front of 9,946 fans at the Rio Tinto would be just what Coach Paul Riley’s side needed to get the Shield wrapped up…
VIDEO LINK: NCC secure the Shield in Utah
The Courage parked in Utah territory during the first half and started to create scoring opportunities. Sam Mewis played in Kristen Hamilton, but she blasted over. Mewis then had a low drive of her own which zipped wide. Abby Erceg got a brief sight of goal from Heather O’Reilly’s corner but couldn’t convert and when the ball broke to Jess McDonald her effort was cleared off the line.
Was it about to one of those days for the league leaders? Um… nope. On 29 minutes Hamilton was played in by McDonald, Canadian midfielder Desiree Scott got her clumsy challenge all wrong and a penalty was awarded. Sam Mewis stepped up to put the Courage in front.
Becky Sauerbrunn nearly put a spanner in the works from a Christen Press corner on 52 minutes but found keeper Stephanie Labbé in stubborn mood.
A slice of good fortune took the game away from Utah in the 65th minute. Jaelene Hinkle looked, for all intents and purposes, like she was crossing from the left. This must have been what Nicole Barnhart thought as well because the flight of the ball caught her out and she was unable to stop it sailing under the bar for 2-0.
Five minutes later, Crystal Dunn anticipated a loose ball into midfield and found Debinha in space with a swift first-time ball. The diminutive playmaker then put the result and the Shield’s destination behind doubt for another season, spinning and shooting low to give the Courage their 50th goal of the campaign.
- Lynn Williams – 22 appearances; 12 goals; 5 assists; 13.6% conversion rate
- Kristen Hamilton – 22 appearances; 9 goals; 5 assists; 23.7% conversion rate
- Debinha – 19 appearances; 8 goals; 7 assists; 12.9% conversion rate
Into the Championship Playoffs
The playoffs get underway on Sunday 20th October at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park where the North Carolina Courage take on Reign FC, who boast one Megan Rapinoe in their ranks.
Immediately afterwards, Chicago Red Stars host the Portland Thorns. The Red Stars led by Julie Ertz, and including 18-goal Australian striker Sam Kerr, have home field advantage which may be helpful as they lost both fixtures Providence Park this season. Portland’s form dipped towards the back end of the campaign but in players such as Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan they have experienced matchwinners.
Great players will be on show for all teams throughout the Championships, but it would be a brave individual who would bet against the Courage winning it again.