On Thursday night the North Carolina Courage, missing six of their prominent players, defeated Paris Saint-Germain Women in the first-ever International Champion’s Cup Women’s Tournament match. Goals from Jess McDonald early and Darian Jenkins late helped the Courage overcome a difficult own goal from Kaleigh Kurtz in the middle of the match. When taken on the whole, this match was extremely even between two sides facing very different challenges, but there were distinct phases of the game where each team had the better of the play.
An opening goal and a tough header
The game started with North Carolina playing their type of soccer and PSG unable to react. The forwards were pressing and winning the ball in the defensive third, PSG was making bad passes and turning the ball over, and it was obvious that mid-season form was helping the team out. After a few good chances, the Courage finally hit pay dirt. Kurtz played the ball forward to McDonald who got in behind the defense and hit a perfectly placed near-post shot that bounced off the post and into the net. That 19th-minute goal came during a string of solid opportunities for the Courage, but the game shifted during the hydration break at minute 30.
It is not uncommon for North Carolina to get knocked off their game after a break in play, whether it be hydration or halftime, and this match was no exception. When asked about what made the difference in the last fifteen minutes of the first half both coaches gave the exact same answer, “water.” PSG, so far from their peak physical form, left the water break with a new fire and the sudden ability to easily solve the press. That ability paid off in the 40th minute when a perfectly played cross caught Kurtz a step behind her mark. She attempted the head the ball over the end line for a corner kick, but she was a step slow and ended up directing it on frame. The near-post header found the hand of goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland, but it was too hard and she couldn’t parry it away. The Courage nearly pulled back a goal just seconds after the restart, but the timing was a bit off and we would go into the locker room tied at 1 - 1.
Surviving the second half
The second half certainly favored PSG compared to the first half. The Courage spent a lot of time defending and chasing the ball, and while they had two or three good looks on frame they were outplayed by PSG. The French side was able to ping the ball around with simple short passes to consistently solve the press. From Paul Riley, “their fullback would get on the ball and just do whatever they wanted, we’d get out to them and they’d play to the extra player, the extra player, the extra player, the extra player. It just kept buzzing around and we were chasing shadows for a good 15-20 minutes.” Over time the Courage would settle in, and the last 25 minutes of the match were very equal. Both sides had solid chances, but play was pretty inconsistent with both teams bringing on substitutes.
With time winding down, the Courage seemed to be in a tough spot with so many inexperienced players on the pitch, but then, all of the sudden, the ball was in the attack and the team capitalized. In the 84th minute, Lynn Williams took the ball on the right side of the field and showed her fitness by dribbling past her defender, pulling the ball back and playing a perfect cross into the box. Darian Jenkins had the step on her defender, and she successfully redirected the ball on frame for her first ever professional goal. Jenkins probably suffered the most from the addition of Heather O’Reilly to the team in terms of minutes, so giving her this opportunity is extremely important for her confidence and her game minutes. The second goal completely defeated PSG. They would forfeit most of the possession and looked absolutely defeated after a draining match in the July heat of Miami.
Paris Saint-Germain was missing two extremely important players for this match. Marie-Laure Delie, the leading scorer in the history of the team, did not travel with the team and Formiga, their Brazilian captain, had surgery and wasn’t match fit.
The final on Sunday
Now the Courage will look forward to the final on Sunday, July 29th at 11 pm against Olympique Lyonnais, who just defeated Manchester City 3-0 in the second match of the evening. Lyon is the closest thing that Europe has to an all-star team, and it will definitely be the most difficult test in Courage history. No team in the NWSL has close to the star power that Lyon boasts, especially considering that they have won the UEFA Women’s Champions League three years running. Lyon combines the best players from around Europe into one super-squad, and it will be interesting to see how match fitness pairs against extreme technical ability. That match should be broadcast on ESPN2.