The North Carolina Courage broke six separate National Women’s Soccer League records on Saturday night as they rolled to a 5-0 win over the Houston Dash. The win, which took place in front of an incredible 9,505 fans, got off to a rocking start as Jess McDonald, Crystal Dunn, and Lynn Williams all scored in the first half of the match. Those three goals were enough to eclipse the all-time scoring record and all but guaranteed that the Courage would win their final match of the season.
Head coach Paul Riley said in his post-game interview that he had asked each of his starting players “do you know?” And each of them, in turn, replied, “yes, Paul.” What they each knew was that this game was historic. This game and this season would be immortalized in the record books of the NWSL long after their respective careers would end if they could just play out the last 90 minutes successfully. They also made a communal pledge to play for McCall Zerboni, who was unable to attend the match due to her surgery.
The game almost started on the wrong foot, but a sliding tackle by Abby Erceg denied a shot from Sofia Huerta. In the 13th minute, McDonald got the opening goal of the match when she dribbled past two Houston defenders and then faked the near-post shot and instead sent the ball gently rolling into the far-post netting to beat Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell.
It took another 13 minutes for the Courage to get their second goal of the match. Williams took a shot from the edge of the box that bounced off the right post of the goal. Dunn followed up and hit the ball into the left post, but the ball graciously fell back to her and she volleyed it back into the goal. Dunn ended the regular season with eight goals.
The record-breaking goal came in the 43rd minute when Williams scored her first goal of the game. Jess McDonald fed a nice through ball to Williams who split two defenders and beat Campbell in a one-v-one situation. The game was excellent for building confidence for the Courage strikers as they managed to finish their easy shots more consistently than normal. The Courage went into halftime with a 3-0 lead, knowing that they had broken one record and had five more teed up.
I hate to say this, but the second half was boring. It’s hard to keep the emotion up when the score gets so out of hand. In the 57th minute, McDonald sent a cross in to Williams who was able to redirect the ball into the net to earn the brace. Williams could have had her second hat trick if she was able to hit a header earlier in the half, but she would be substituted off just a few minutes after her goal ending her season with 14 goals. Subbing out Williams meant that she ended the year two goals short in the race for the Golden Boot award.
The final goal of the match was scored by substitute Kristen Hamilton in the 70th minutes. She found herself with the ball close to the goal and she sent a beautiful shot into the top of the net. With no major offensive injuries in 2018, Hamilton’s role definitely declined this season, but she always brought a big uptick in intensity when she hit the field.
As the game came to a close, the Courage let off the gas and Houston had a few solid opportunities. It was around the 75th minute when Houston took over the game, and they had about ten minutes of run where they were on the front foot. Fortunately, they were able to earn their 11th clean sheet of the season despite a few defensive mishaps. The last seven minutes of the match were just about nothing. Houston was done and the Courage were ready to celebrate, so both sides were just running out the clock.
With the win, the Courage set multiple records. They scored the most points in a season (57), won the most games in a season (17), ended with the largest goal differential (+36), allowed the fewest goals in a season (17), and suffered the fewest losses in a season (1). As the league grows and the season extends beyond 24 games those first three records will be broken. The latter two records might stand the test of time and will only be quantified by the number of games played in the 2018 season.
The Courage have one more home game as they face off against the Chicago Red Stars in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season. If the Courage are able to win that match, the team will travel to Portland to face the winner of the other semifinal match between Portland Thorns FC and Seattle Reign FC. Assuming that there is no catastrophic hurricane disrupting the match, the Courage will host the Red Stars at 3:00 pm ET on Sunday, September 16. Last season the Courage hosted a sell-out crowd, and I would be surprised if there weren’t a new record-high number of fans at the game on Sunday.