NC Courage v Utah Royals game recap

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.

Off-the-pitch highlights

  1. 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.
  2. 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!”

1 Sorry kids, no pictures from today’s match. Mama doesn’t have enough hands to take notes and work a camera. *sad trombone*

The Raleigh World: My First NC Courage Match

For all that the Bay Area has to offer in sports, it lacks women’s professional basketball1 and soccer teams. Luckily, now that I’m in Raleigh, National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) matches are just a few minutes from home. I attended my first North Carolina Courage match last Saturday against Sky Blue FC (based in New Jersey). The Courage held a flash ticket sale during the US Men’s National Team match last Tuesday and at $10 for any seat in the park, I couldn’t say no. I not only had a great seat, I had money left over for iced tea2 and cheese fries! (It’s those little joys in life…)

An early highlight of the day (that, believe it or not, had nothing to do with cheese fries): as I was looking for my seat, a group of young girls near me called out to Carli Lloyd as Sky Blue FC began their pre-game warm-up. Although I didn’t see the interaction, I know Lloyd waved to the girls because I suddenly found myself in the middle of a cloudburst of screaming and jumping. In that moment I saw my own 10-year-old self reflected in their excitement and nearly started jumping and squealing right along with them. For all of the ways that Carli Lloyd dominates the game, it always earns a special place in my soul when players interact with children. I absolutely LOVE the representation of women from so many backgrounds in the NWSL. It’s beautiful to see these children see themselves represented at the highest levels of the sport, but it’s also wonderful to see players–perhaps seeing their own 10-year-old selves reflected in their young fans–interact and encourage the next generation.

Cheese fries eaten (and the carton properly disposed of because I didn’t want to step in old cheese) and nursing that iced tea, it was time for some soccer! There’s a purity to the women’s game that I was drawn to while watching the Women’s World Cup that I appreciated even more watching in person. Without a lot of theatrics that are often associated with the men’s game, the fundamental skills–the real beauty of the game–are more fully on display. The other thing that I saw and loved was a universal work ethic. No one quits on the play, which caught me by surprise a couple of times as I leaned back anticipating a throw-in or a goal kick, only to have the play continue and, in a couple of cases, scoring chances created.

Speaking of skill and work, for the better part of two hours I had a huge grin on my face watching Crystal Dunn, Lynn Williams, and Debinha drive Sky Blue’s defense bonkers while McCall Zerboni cooly held down the midfield and directed traffic back toward Sky Blue’s side of the field. This is a team that is abundant in talent and drive.

Despite outshooting Sky Blue 22-3 (including a couple of very near-misses and a shot that clanked off of the right post) the game looked to end in a scoreless draw until Jaelene Hinkle sprung Jessica McDonald with a pass that rolled perfectly into her stride. McDonald slalomed through Sky Blue’s defense, drew Sky Blue’s Kailen Sheridan out of her goal and then tapped the ball into the empty net for the extra-time winner.3

It was a great afternoon of sunshine (so glad I brought sunscreen!) and soccer. I’m grateful to have an NWSL team in my back yard and look forward to going to many more matches.

NC Courage v Sky Blue FC
NC Courage’s Starting IX huddle before kickoff
NC Courage v Sky Blue FC
The referee and McCall Zerboni have a discussion prior to kickoff.
NC Courage v Sky Blue FC
Crystal Dunn was a general nuisance against Sky Blue FC’s defense.
courage v sky-blue FC
NC Courage players close in on Sky Blue FC
NC Courage v Sky Blue FC
McCall Zerboni and Carli Lloyd look on as Lynn Williams and Shea Groom battle for the ball.

1There is talk about bringing a WNBA team to San Francisco, once the Golden State Warriors build their new arena.

2I have yet to have Sweet Tea, which seems to be the preferred drink in the South. I’m a simple tea drinker: I prefer tea leaves and water in my tea.

3There was about 4 minutes of stoppage time added and the goal was scored right about the 94 minute mark. THIS IS WHY YOU NEVER LEAVE FOR THE PARKING LOT UNTIL THE FINAL WHISTLE.