2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, opening match
Zions Bank Stadium, Utah
This highly anticipated matchup perhaps didn’t live up to the billing in terms of on the field play, but it was an intriguing encounter nonetheless. There were flashes of quality throughout an otherwise patchy affair, as the North Carolina Courage opened up their 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup campaign with a 2-1 win over the Portland Thorns.
This was the first game either of these times had played together in 8 months, since the conclusion of the 2019 season. And it showed at times, particularly during a laborious first half where both teams struggled to find any momentum or rhythm going forward in a half that still belonged to the North Carolina Courage. The lack of match sharpness coupled together with the summer heat and high altitude of the Traverse mountain range was always going to be tough for both teams.
This was the first taste of real match action that either side has had over recent weeks, besides intrasquad scrimmages. As such the game had the air of a pre-season friendly to it, whilst still harbouring the intensity that we come to expect from these two sides. It was a lively first 5 minutes or so. Lynne Williams had the first real sight of goal after only 3 minutes. Williams scampered away down the left edge of the penalty area, before her low cross-cum shot was deflected away for the first corner of the game. Debinha fired just wide a couple of minutes later, but the game lulled for a while after a sprightly opening few minutes.
Both teams were just feeling one another out, though both struggled to string together any significant passing moves. Possession changed hands a number of times from around the 10th minute, until Canadian veteran Christine Sinclair had Portland’s first sight at goal on the 15-minute mark. Portland won a corner on the right-hand side, which was drilled in by Meghan Klingenberg. The ball ricocheted around the area, before eventually falling to Sinclair who turned the ball goalward. Only for Abby Dahlkemper to block for the Courage.
Lindsey Horan, the hugely popular USWNT playmaker, was starting to find her feet around 20 minutes. The American linked up particularly well with Christine Sinclair on 22 minutes, as a neat one two sent Sinclair down the left edge of the penalty area. However, the Canadian’s cross was easily cleared by the North Carolina defence.
The first big chance of the game came a few minutes later. North Carolina were excellent in closing down a loose ball, which eventually came towards Lynne Williams on the halfway line. Williams spun and turned Emily Menges excellently before charging towards the Portland penalty area. There was a two v one in the Courage’s favour, however Williams selfishly went for goal despite Kristen Hamilton finding herself in acres of space. Williams was only able to send her shot high and wide. Profligate finishing would be the bane of William’s match for much of this contest. Not all, though.
A couple of minutes later, another great chance for the Courage as Kristen Hamilton found herself with the freedom of Portland’s penalty area. A cross from Addisyn Merrick found Hamilton in acres of space, though she could only send her header over the bar.
Portland were struggling to find any rhythm at all, and North Carolina were just starting to find their feet. Lynne Williams went close again as she chased a through ball into the penalty area. Williams turned inside, and Becky Sauerbrunn made an uncharacteristic slip which allowed the USWNT striker to crack a low drive towards goal from 6 yards out. Bella Bixby, making her pro debut, was equal to it. The keeper went down low to her right and blocked the goal bound shot superbly.
On 40 minutes the Thorns made a rare foray into the North Carolina area, and were perhaps unlucky not to be awarded a spot-kick. Lindsey Horan went down under the challenge of the otherwise outstanding, Denise O’Sullivan. Referee Lukasz Spzala saw nothing doing though, and waved away Horan’s pleas. The former Paris Saint Germain player certainly looked to have a point. At first glance it does seem that she is caught on the heels. Huge let off for the Courage, who were just beginning to turn the screw.
The half came to an end with the game still tied at 0-0, but with North Carolina very much in the ascendency. Ever heard the saying ‘it’s a game of two halves?’ Well, this was it. Where the first half was patchy, the second half was vibrant and much more becoming of two of the best teams in this league. The game was still dogged, in parts. But what does one expect after 8 months of no action?
Debinha, in particular, really came to life for the Courage in the second 45. Playing in a free role, just off the two main strikers, the Brazilian was able to pirouette and torment the Portland backline at will. On 58 minutes the enigmatic North Carolina number 10, released Lynne Williams down the left-hand side. The American’s pull-back was well cleared, but you could see the Thorns’ defence was beginning to tire.
Debinha then stung the palms of Bella Bixby with a rasping right footed drive on 62 minutes. There was a very unfortunate looking injury for North Carolina’s Ally Watt, who had subbed in for Kristen Hamilton. Watt, making her pro debut, pulled up on 68 minutes and had to leave the field on a stretcher. Early indications are that it could be a knee injury. We wish her well.
The pace of the game was so much more fluid, in an infinitely more entertaining second 45. This was what we had all tuned in for. The very best teams, in the very best league in the world going toe to toe. As much as the Thorns’ defence was tiring, they were still well organised. The Thorns were proving a tough nut to crack, for a North Carolina team who were keen to get off to a winning start. The Courage's favoured high press was beginning to bear fruit, however. As the Courage won corner after corner.
A slew of second half substitutions did nothing to halt the ebb and flow of the game. If anything the injection of fresh legs ensured the game was played at a higher tempo. Then, in the 73rd minute, the game really sparked into life. The Thorns won a free-kick just inside the North Carolina half. A floated ball found Lindsey Horan in acres of space. Stephanie Labbé was routed to her line, heart presumably in mouth, as Horan made her trademark late run into the box. Thankfully, for the Courage, Horan’s glancing header collided with the post before being cleared to safety. Fine margins, as barely a minute later the Courage were ahead. NWSL debutant Hailie Mace found herself free down the right flank, and was able to clip in a dangerous looking cross for the advancing Debinha to ghost in, and head home completely unmarked. No one could argue that the goal was against the run of play. It was richly deserved.
The North Carolina Courage are infamous for striking again, whilst still in the ascendancy. That is to say, typically, they will go full throttle after scoring in an attempt to kill the game off. Typically. Bizarrely, that did not seem to be the case here. The Courage sat off, and the Thorns began to play a little more on the front foot, as they searched for an equaliser. An equaliser that came on 80 minutes. A cross from the right-hand side, again found Horan with space. The midfielder’s header came crashing back off the bar before eventually being prodded home by former Canberra United loanee, Simone Charley. Game on.
The goal seemed to give Portland confidence, as substitute Morgan Weaver tested Labbé in the Courage goal. The Washington State product hit a right footed drive from distance, which Labbé turned around the post at full stretch. From the resultant corner substitute Anika Rodriguez volleyed over. The Thorns were in the ascendancy, and looking good. A troublesome looking injury to Lindsey Horan halted the game on 86, thankfully the USWNT player was able to carry on.
However, Horan could not stop the Courage from taking a well-deserved victory deep into time added on. Denise O’Sullivan superbly won back possession on the halfway line on 93 minutes, before switching the play to Cari Roccaro on the right-hand side. Roccaro then played a neat looking ball into Samantha Mewis, who danced around a lackadaisical Portland challenge before sending over a perfect cross for Lynne Williams to head home. Williams, who had been guilty of passing up a number of chances for the Courage finally got her reward as North Carolina took the game 2-1.
The often underrated, but not necessarily underappreciated O’Sullivan did not put a foot wrong today. She was an excellent shield for the Courage backline, was prudent in possession and played a vital part in the winning goal. Super performance.
The North Carolina Courage
Labbé- 7. Didn’t have a whole lot to do, but most of what she did, she did well. Will be annoyed with herself about the goal, and perhaps that’s justified.
Daniels- 7 everyone’s favourite NWSL player put in a solid shift today. Defensively sound.
Erceg- 6. Rarely tested, but reliable when called upon.
Dahlkemper- 6 Like Erceg, didn’t have a whole lot to do, but what she did do she did with calmness and poise.
Merrick- 7. Combined well with Crystal Dunn, and was a threat going forward.
Mewis –7. Set up the winning goal. Generally, didn’t do much wrong.
O’Sullivan- 9. Best player on the field today. Often goes unnoticed, but this team relies on her.
Debinha- 8. Oozed class in the second half, and took her goal well.
Dunn- 6. Threatening at times, but was subbed after 60 minutes.
Williams- 8. Lively all game. Should have passed to Hamilton in the first half. Scored the game winner, and took that goal well.
Substitutes (that made it into the game)
Rocarro – 7. Big hand in the game winner.
Watt – 6. Looked lively, but sadly went off injured.
Milliet – 7. Did herself no harm. Looked assured in possession.
Mace – 8. Did just what you want a sub to do, impact the game. Excellent run and cross for the opener.
Bixby- 8. Looked calm and assured on her debut. Commanded her area well, and couldn’t have done much with either goal.
Hubly- 6. Generally, very solid, wasn’t able to impact the game much going forward due to Dunn and Merrick pushing up so high.
Menges –6. Appeared to struggle with the pace of Williams at times.
Sauerbrunn- 7. As solid and as dependable as ever.
Klingenberg- 7. Was dangerous from set pieces, and was able to get forward and effect the game more than her compatriot on the opposite flank.
Salem- 6. Did OK, looked off the pace at times.
Horan –7. Not her best game, but still looked lively. Unlucky not to win a penalty on 40 minutes.
Rodriguez- 5. Largely anonymous.
Sinclair – 6. Linked up well with Horan at times. Never got a real good sight at goal.
Lussi – 6. Portland struggled to get forward in the first half, so was largely out of the game.
Everett –5. Didn’t get a kick all game.
Boureille – 7. Looked composed when she came on.
Charley- 7. Scored the game tying goal and got herself about the pitch.
Weaver- 7. Looked lively, and does not seem to lack confidence.
Westphal- 7. Played some dangerous balls into the Courage area.
By Dan Berridge
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos