Every emotion was felt as the North Carolina Courage managed to sneak past the Orlando Pride 4-3 in their second consecutive road win. There are plenty of aspects to this game that should be lauded and bemoaned from Courage Country, so let’s break down this match.
A perfectly traditional first half
The Courage came out hot. The defense had very little to do for the first 45 minutes as the midfield and forwards controlled the ball and broke down Orlando early and often. Jess McDonald and Crystal Dunn each found themselves faced up with Orlando goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris repeatedly, but it took a frustratingly long time for the Courage to get their first goal. This has been a consistent problem throughout the season, and it’s something that every player and coach that I’ve interviewed has mentioned: The Courage have to finish more efficiently.
Nevertheless, in the 32nd minute, after both teams had goals reversed with questionable offside calls, the Courage finally found pay dirt. Merritt Mathias dribbled the ball down the sideline and beat two Orlando defenders with her cross, but McCall Zerboni’s shot was blocked. The ball bounced in the air and Irish attacking midfielder Denise O’Sullivan kicked it forward toward the goal. McDonald was waiting there, and while she was probably in an offside position, she managed to swat the ball into the goal.
A great effort from @OSullivanDenise sets up @J_Mac1422 for the perfect finish!#ORLvNC 0-1 #NoFinishLine pic.twitter.com/VucghLe1qc— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) May 24, 2018
The Courage would take a 1-0 lead into halftime after out-shooting Orlando 16-4.
Second half woes and a miracle finish
For the second week in a row, the Courage came out flat to start the second half. The first five minutes after the restart were brutal to watch, and the shoe finally dropped in the 52nd minute when Orlando forward Chioma Ubogagu took advantage of a miscommunication between goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland and defender Abby Erceg to tie things up. The ball bounced off of Rowland’s chest on the ground and ricocheted into the goal.
Things looked bleak for a while, but suddenly the Courage had new life. After the long Pride offensive, the Courage took advantage of an Orlando miscue to take the lead back. Jaelene Hinkle dribbled the ball down the left side of the pitch and tried to pass in to Debinha. The ball was poorly played by the intercepting defenders, and it poked through toward the top of the box. Debinha took off and kicked the ball with the toe of her boot and caught Ashlyn Harris off guard, giving the Courage a 2-1 lead in the 57th minute. Buoyed by Debinha’s play, the Courage pushed the tempo and created another scoring opportunity in the 62nd minute. Crystal Dunn took the ball toward the left corner flag and sent a looping cross into the middle of the box. Sam Mewis, one of the tallest players on the pitch, headed the ball on goal and caught Harris standing planted on her line. The ball didn’t find the net on its own, though. Instead, it bounced off the inside of the right post, hit the back of Harris’ leg and bounced into the goal to give the Courage a 3-1 lead. It was officially counted as an own goal against Harris.
There's no stopping a @sammymewy header #ORLvNC #NoFinishLine pic.twitter.com/UNzV59miKG— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) May 24, 2018
Despite how great things looked, it was clear that the Courage were playing with fire. It only took one minute for the Pride to earn a corner kick after the restart. The ball was played into the box, and Orlando defender Alanna Kennedy played a perfect header into the right upper 90 to reduce the lead to 1 in the 64th minute.
As both teams started to wear down, it looked like the Courage might be able to coast to a 3-2 road win, but that complacency let the team down again. Brazilian superstar Marta collected the ball for Orlando on the left side of the pitch in the 83rd minute, drove toward the end line and sent a low laser of a cross right through the box. Four Courage defenders and Rowland all watched the ball skip through the six-yard box until it found the feet of substitute Rachel Hill who clinically finished the shot into the top of the net. With less than ten minutes left in regulation, the game was knotted at 3 apiece.
With time running down on their second game in four days, the Courage dug deep and found that spark that other teams just can’t seem to match this season. Abby Erceg came up from her center back position to cut out a short pass on the Orlando side of the field, and she immediately sent the ball wide left for Hinkle. Jae looked up, took one step, and sent a perfect 30-yard pass to the head of McDonald at the top of the 6-yard box. Harris was late off her line, and she flailed in the air as McDonald’s header slowly curled towards the goal. Shelina Zadorsky, the Orlando defender, actually had a chance to save the goal, but instead of heading the ball out of the net it bounced into the side netting giving McDonald a brace on the night. Suddenly, in the 90th minute the Courage were back on top.
Make that 2️⃣ for @J_Mac1422!#ORLvNC #NoFinishLine pic.twitter.com/Pz6pR9qe1S— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) May 24, 2018
The final seconds were harrowing as an Orlando free-kick hit the ground in the box, but the clearance came and the whistle followed; the Courage were victorious.
There were positive and negative aspects to this match. For every positive there seems to be a negative, save the last one...
The Courage are consistently dominating the first half of games, but their finishing is so poor that they are unable to turn that dominance into a strong early lead.
The Courage managed to score three goals in the second half, but they came out sluggish for the second straight week and allowed Orlando to overcome a one-goal deficit and a two-goal deficit before closing off the match.
The midfield and defense are prone to errors on restarts, but the offense is equally threatening on restarts.
This team just keeps winning, and as long as that keeps happening the rest of it is just a part of the journey. There aren’t many teams that would look at an 8W-2D-0L start to the season and focus on the negatives, but this is a team that is never satisfied. That’s what makes them so great.