The North Carolina Courage (7W-2D-0L) triumphed over Sky Blue FC (0W-1D-5L) despite easing up in the second half and nearly allowing a comeback. The 2-1 victory on the road ties the Courage for the best start to a regular season in NWSL history with the 2014 Seattle Reign FC. Sky Blue is the only team in the NWSL without a win at this point in the season.
A dominant first half
While Sky Blue started with possession on the opening whistle it was the Courage who notched the first shot. The Courage took full control of the game earning shots on goal in the first and second minutes, but it was a fifth minute save by goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland that set the pace for the match. SBFC striker Shea Groom collected the ball at the top of the box, cut toward the middle of the field and took a powerful shot that was set to give the home team the lead, but Rowland parried the ball over the net and kept the game scoreless.
The next 40 minutes were all Courage. After a few good opportunities, Jess McDonald found the ball on the right flank and screamed down the sideline. Even in possession, she outpaced the entire Sky Blue defense, and she sent a perfect ball to the top of the six-yard box. The only player on the field capable of matching McDonald was Crystal Dunn, who ran full speed past three Sky Blue defenders and made a sliding shot to the bottom-right corner of the goal; past the waiting goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.
It only took 12 minutes for the Courage to strike again, but the finish was far less clinical. Dunn held the ball up at the top of the box, and she found Debinha making a run into the penalty area. Debinha sent a short pass to McDonald with the outside of her foot, but the pass was too far forward and Sheridan made a play on the ball. Fortunately for the Courage, Sheridan mishandled the ball and it slipped out to the right where Sam Mewis forced the ball through a Sky Blue defender and into the goal.
In a harbinger of things to come, North Carolina had an amazing opportunity go unfinished later in the half. McDonald had an open shot at the top of the goal faced up against the keeper, but she skied the ball and could only laugh at herself after a terrible miss.
Rowland saves the day
Sky Blue came out with a vengeance in the second half, as they certainly felt lucky to have kept the game to just two goals. As they say, a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer and the Courage nearly proved the adage true.
The Courage had the better of the game through the 70th minute, but it lacked the utter dominance of the first half. In the most painful occurrence, Debinha had Sheridan on her heels with the ball at the top of the six-yard box, but she foolishly tried to chip the keeper instead of playing it low to either side and the ball sailed over the net fin 5 yards away. The miss came on the heels of a period if strong Courage pressure, and when it broke the defense seemed out of sorts.
The first big mistake came in the 71st minute when Rowland was forced to come off her line and make a tactical foul at the top of the box that earned her a caution and set Sky Blue up in the dangerous location. SBFC opted to play cute with the free kick and midfielder Carli Lloyd dribbled the ball into the box instead of taking a shot. Her touch was far too strong and was destined to cross over the end-line, but McCall Zerboni stuck her foot out and tripped Lloyd in the box.
It was a clear foul even though the ball was nearly out of bounds already, and it looked like the home team was about to get on the board. Fortunately for the Courage faithful, Rowland had other plans. In a moment of pure goalkeeping brilliance, she blocked the first attempt by Lloyd from the penalty spot, guessing correctly that the shot was coming to the left side of goal. The ball bounced away and fell right to the feet of midfielder Raquel (Rocky) Rodriguez who took a hard left-footed shot that was denied by the right knee of Rowland.
I’d like to stop here and say that it is always frustrating to see the team that takes the PK getting to the rebound first. You just let your goalkeeper down and put her in a nearly impossible situation against one of the best finishers in USWNT history...the least you can do is charge the ball down in case she saves it. Anyways, back to the recap.
Riding the positive momentum from the save, the Courage went back to controlling the game better than they had through the first thirty minutes of the half, but they were still unable to extend the lead despite a few promising opportunities. As the game was running out in stoppage time the Courage allowed another mistake on a free kick. A silly foul just outside of the box gave Sky Blue another opportunity to cut into the lead. They tapped the ball to the right and Lloyd took an uncontested shot from 22 yards that she casually bent into the top-right corner of the net, denying Rowland her first clean sheet of the season. It was a fitting end to a match that should never have been close, and the ref blew her whistle to end the match before the ball was reset.
A midweek match awaits
If you’re a Courage fan you won’t have to wait long to see the team in action again. On Wednesday night the Orlando Pride will host the Courage at 7:30 pm ET. A trip to Orlando was the first loss of the 2017 season, and the task is going to monumental on Wednesday if they want to keep the undefeated streak alive. Orlando did not play this weekend, so they have had 10 days of rest while the Courage will be running on three days with travel from NJ to NC to FL during that time. Orlando (3W-3D-2L) currently sits third in the standings, but they would move into second with a win on Wednesday.