The North Carolina Courage ground out 2-0 win against Sky Blue FC in a high quality encounter, which was the last preliminary round match of the NWSL Challenge Cup, at the Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. The Courage, which had already secured the top seed ahead of the knockouts, finished the prelims winning all 4 of their matches, and will now play last ranked Portland Thorns on Friday, 17 July at 12.30 pm ET in the first quarterfinal. Sky Blue ended up 7th in the table after tying with the Chicago Red Stars on points, goal difference, goal scored, but having a worse disciplinary record (more yellow cards). They will play the Washington Spirit, who came in 2nd, on 18 July at 12.30 pm ET, in the third quarterfinal.
Sky Blue kept the same winning lineup and formation (4-3-3) as their previous match against the Houston Dash, the only change being Sabrina Flores (who had played the first 2 games at left back) coming in for Midge Purce at right back. Purce, who was initially named as one of the substitutes, was later mentioned to be unavailable entirely, before the start of the match, with no reason given.
Courage rolled out in their usual first choice strong starting lineup and formation (4-2-2-2), with impressive rookie Addisyn Merrick cementing her place at right back.
The Courage were fast out of the blocks, forcing a series of corners from Sky Blue. Finally from one in the 7th minute, Sam Mewis reacted fastest to a loose in the box, and blasted a left foot shot from close range giving Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan no chance to make a save. Debinha found some joy in the opening minutes as she forced Sheridan to make a good save in the 18th minute trying a first-time shot from just within the penalty box from a central location. Then in the 28th minute, she slipped a neat pass for Crystal Dunn to run onto, but Sheridan made a huge save with her right foot to deny Dunn’s close range left foot shot from going in the net. Sky Blue, to their credit, didn’t get bogged down under the initial Courage onslaught. They kept true to their new possession style that they are trying out this year, being patient in their buildup, matching and even frustrating the Courage in the midfield, breaking up the Courage attacks with smart positioning, tackles and interceptions. But they couldn’t have any meaningful shots on the Courage goal because of a combination of an impenetrable backline led by excellent Abby Erceg, and lack of creativity from Sky Blue in the final third to break such a resolute defence. As the first half wound to a close, play was stopped for sometime after a foul was called on Sky Blue’s McCall Zerboni for tripping Lynn Williams. It was a 50-50 call, which could have gone either way. It seems Sky Blue’s General Manager, Alyse Lahue, had berated the referees, and was reprimanded and asked to move to the stands from the player’s area. Even NWSL commissioner, Lisa Baird, went by to monitor the situation. This probably was a culmination of a series of calls going against Sky Blue. Just a few minutes before this, Paige Monaghan of Sky Blue was brutally brought down outside the right side of the Courage penalty box by a push/shove from behind, but no foul was given.
In the second half, the Courage adjusted to Sky Blue easily playing through them, by sitting back a bit and trying to hit Sky Blue on the counter. Sky Blue subbed in Evelyne Viens for Paige Monaghan in the wide right forward role, who probably hadn’t recovered from the foul on her just before halftime which wasn’t given. The Courage started finding space behind Sky Blue's left back, Imani Dorsey, who had started going up field to join in the attacks. During one such run, Courage's Kristen Hamilton was brought down by Estelle Johnson in the penalty box, but surprisingly no penalty was given. This seems to be consistent with other similar no calls in the tournament so far, most notably when Abby Erceg had fouled Kealia Watt of the Chicago Red Stars after she had just released her shot in the penalty box, but no penalty was given. This kind of referring where sometimes no fouls are called, no cards are shown is part of the reason why the NWSL is notorious for being a physical league that stifles free flowing creative football. The 2 Courage forwards switched sides, and in the 56th minute it was Lynn Williams who ran in the space mentioned above and crossed it to Dunn who was just inside the penalty box. Sky Blue's central defender, Gina Lewandowski, did get a touch to intercept it, but that wasn't enough and Dunn finished with a powerful shot to the left of Sheridan, giving her no chance of a save. With a comfortable 2-0 lead, the Courage made a number of substitutions to conserve their main starters' energy for the quarterfinals. But Sky Blue continued their impressive performance with centre forward Ifeoma Onumonu switching positions with Viens. The only shot on target they managed was in the 91st minute when Viens' first time effort from the right of Courage's goal off an Onumonu through ball was saved by goalkeeper, Katelyn Rowland.
The Courage, despite not being allowed to be their commanding best by Sky Blue, were still able to get the win. With their winning mentality and superior fitness, they will be favourites in their quarterfinal match against the Thorns, who are creating a lot of chances, but are finding it very difficult to find the back of the net. Also, the Thorns seem to be overly reliant on midfielder Lindsey Horan being exceptional all over the pitch, which is not a good strategy. This is not a problem the Courage have with each of their players having the ability to significantly impact the game.
Sky Blue take on the Spirit in their quarterfinal, who like them like to possess the ball a lot. But the Spirit are better at it as they have been playing this way from last year. Also, they have a cutting edge in attack because of the uniquely creative Rose Lavelle, something Sky Blue misses sorely. They probably wish they had not given up Ashley Sanchez in this year's draft, who would have filled the hole in the number 10 role left by Carli Lloyd to some extent. Spirit will be without their captain and highly influential central midfielder, Andi Sullivan, who suffered a torn meniscus in their last match against the Houston Dash.
Her ability to break up opposition attacks and build their own will be missed. Sky Blue have progressed quite nicely with new personnel and style of play over these 4 matches, but are not there yet. The midfield, led by the exceptional Sarah Woldmoe, has done well to control games. Of the 4 matches they've played, the 3 night ones were when they were at their best. The only day game they played, they suffered a lot with the heat, with players' off the ball movements taking the most hit. And their quarterfinal is a day game. Considering these factors, the Spirit do look favourites, but it should be an interesting matchup.
By Alok Dadhekar
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos