It was a perfect afternoon for soccer in Cary, NC as the 4-0-0 NC Courage took on the Utah Royals, in their first-ever NWSL matchup1. Utah was coming off a 0-1 loss to Chicago a week ago, while the undefeated and league-leading Courage were playing their third game in eight days.
Utah challenged the Courage in the very early moments of the match, but NC just missed on an early scoring opportunity in the second minute when a lob pass into the Royals’ penalty area just missed a leaping Abby Dahlkemper’s header attempt and then Lynn Williams nearly got on the end of a pass in the 18 yard box but was a step shy.
The Courage got on the board in the 6th minute as Merritt Mathias smashed a volley from 20 yards in front of the goal that beat Utah’s Abby Smith and caught the top corner for the day’s first goal. NC took command of the game after Mathias’ goal and held most of the play in Utah’s half of the field, outshooting them 6-1. Dahlkemper and Jaelene Hinckle were kept busy in the first half taking corner kicks, but Utah’s defense stifled most of NC’s scoring chances. The Courage looked like they would double their lead in the 24th minute when Crystal Dunn lifted a gorgeous pass to Jessica McDonald but her header went just wide.
As is usually the case, McCall Zerboni and Denise O’Sullivan were all over the pitch, disrupting the Royal’s offense and not allowing Utah to find their flow in the first half. But despite dominating play in the first half, North Carolina found themselves up by only 1-0 at halftime.
Utah found their feet in the second half and it began to look like playing their third match in a week might be catching up to the Courage as some uncharacteristic mistakes began creeping into their game. Utah’s Katie Stengel took advantage of a defensive miscommunication between Dahlkemper and Katelyn Rowland in the 52’ to even the game at one apiece.
Paul Riley made a couple of early substitutions in the second half, bringing on Darian Jenkins for McDonald in the 55th minute, and Samantha Mews came on for Kristen Hamilton in the 67th minute.
With new life after tying the game, the Royals put pressure on the Courage and had them on their heels for much of the second half, which would cause the North Carolina defense to make another costly mistake when Rowland’s clearing attempt in the 66th minute landed right at the feet of Brittany Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe rocketed a shot past Rowland into the top right corner of the net and Utah had the lead and a glimmer of hope for securing their first win in the NWSL.
However, the Courage did not fold after giving up two poor defensive goals. They found their grit and began challenging Utah for the ball. Both teams managed to stuff the other side’s attack through the middle 20 minutes of the half before NC started wearing away at Utah’s defense. Zerboni and Dunn were back to making a nuisance of themselves and in the 80’ O’Sullivan broke free and sent the ball to Williams but the pass was a bit heavy and she couldn’t catch up to it. Unfortunately for the Royals, Abby Smith skiffed on her clearing attempt and the ball and Williams got past her. With Williams chasing down the ball Crystal Dunn stepped around the defender and deflected the ball into the net to tie the game.
At the end of 90+ minutes, North Carolina had earned the point and maintained their 5-game unbeaten streak, while Utah came away with their third draw of the season. It was a hard-fought, but not a chippy match and a 2-2 draw reflected the character of the game.
Next up for the Courage is a trip to Houston to take on the winless Dash on April 28th.
- I finally saw Roary, the Courage mascot. Roary is a hit with the littles, though I was amused to note that when she encountered some shy kids she held a paw out to them, just like when we humans encounter a shy kitty and hold out a hand for them to sniff.
- I sat next to a woman who drove 2-½ hours from Virginia for the match. She told me she started watching women’s soccer during the World Cup and began following the NWSL. The NC Courage and NWSL put such an engaging product on the pitch with entertaining and talented women, that this woman thought, “Hey, it’s my day off: I think I’ll drive down to Raleigh for the game!”