The North Carolina Courage earned a 1-0 victory over Olympique Lyonnais Women to claim the first-ever ICC Women’s Tournament title. Both teams were undermanned, but that didn’t stop the final from feeling like a championship match. North Carolina was missing six of their players while Lyon, who is still in preseason, was missing a handful of their own. The Courage were hardly dominant in the match, with Lyon winning 71% of the possession and out-shooting North Carolina 23-7. Fortunately, the Courage won in the only category that mattered: balls that crossed the goal line. They won that category one goal to nil.
Happily wrong about almost everything
In the preview, I thought that Paul Riley would come out and play their traditional brand of soccer, but I simply couldn’t have been more wrong. The team came out in an unfamiliar 1-4-1-4 lineup, with Lynn Williams up top as the lone striker, Yuri Kawamura in the middle as the lone defensive midfielder, and two lines of midfield and defense. The goal of this lineup was to provide defensive support and stout battle lines to stymie the Lyon attack. It also allowed the Courage to defend wider than they normally would and keep more of a defensive shape.
I was generally right about the flow of the game. North Carolina was pressing high early and it kept Lyon on their toes. It was during the early parts of the game that the Courage generated just about all of their offensive statistics. After a few decent chances right at the start, the Courage would capitalize on Lyon’s early-game slump to score the only goal of the match. It wasn’t a particularly impressive goal. Lynn Williams took the ball down the side of the pitch, played a good cross into the box, and Heather O’Reilly got a powerful hit on it. The shot wasn’t well placed, it went right at the goalkeeper, but the ball was hit with enough pace that it passed underneath the keeper and slowly rolled into the goal. That 11th-minute strike would be the only scoring play of the night and would eventually prove to be the game-winning shot.
In the 28th minute, disaster struck. Kawamura went to challenge a Lyon player on the ball when her foot seemed to stick in the grass. Without contact, she fell to the ground crying. It’s always dangerous to speculate on injuries, but fellow Japanese international Saki Kumagai came over and comforted Kawamura while she was on the ground. On the live stream you could see Jaelene Hinkle ask what was wrong, Kumagai responded, and Hinkle mouthed back “it’s her knee?” After the game, Riley told reporters that Kawamura said it was the same feeling as when she suffered the ACL injury against Chicago last year. She had only come back from that injury six weeks earlier.
From the injury forward, the Courage stayed penned in their defensive half for almost the entire rest of the game. Whenever the Courage got the ball they would press up the field and turn it over almost immediately. While Lyon peppered the goal with 15 shots in the second half, equivalent to one shot every three minutes, there is one moment that stands out as the most dangerous. Courage goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo saw an incoming cross and decided to come out for the ball. She misjudged the trajectory, and it was headed into the air. When it came down, some player from Lyon redirected the ball toward goal, but defender Kaleigh Kurtz was glued to the post and the ball bounced away and was cleared. Of all the opportunities, and they were pretty much endless, that one was the most dangerous. Apart from that misplay, D’Angelo kept her cool, made all of the necessary saves and kept a clean sheet against Lyon. Fun fact; Lyon has been held scoreless four times in the last year, once in league play in a 0-0 draw with PSG, once in Champions League play in a 0-0 draw with Manchester City, once in the Coupe de France Féminine where they were beaten 1-0 by PSG, and tonight.
Beating Lyon was fantastic and something that was scarcely predicted in the soccer world. That said, neither team was at full strength or top physical condition. It was an excellent match and growing experience for both teams, but it was just a friendly tournament (that we won!).
Back to the NWSL
After winning the tournament, North Carolina will get back to full strength (hopefully) in time for a home match against Portland Thorns FC on August 5th. It will be the first home match for the Courage since their 2-0 victory over the Washington Spirit back on July 11th. With a victory, the Courage will clinch the Supporters’ Shield for the second consecutive season. They have already clinched a home playoff game for September.