We’re off to the Championship game again, North Carolina Courage fans. On a gloomy Sunday in Cary, North Carolina, the Courage failed to win their semifinal playoff game in regulation, but they completely outclassed Reign FC in extra time to secure a big 4-1 victory. At the death, it was the fitness of the Courage that really won the game. The Reign just couldn’t keep up once the game clicked into the 91st minute, and the Courage would score twice in the first 15-minute period before adding another goal in the second extra time.
An evenly matched game
Reign FC have to be given so much credit for the way they came out and played. From the opening whistle, they sat deep and closed down expertly against the Courage attacking players. They were rarely pulled out of position as the Courage probed endlessly for an opening. There were chances, for sure, but goalkeeper Casey Murphy showed amazing poise as she blocked attempt after attempt. It’s tough to count just how many 1v1 saves Murphy made, but it was almost certainly greater than the total number of shots on goal that RFC took all game. Between Murphy and the post, North Carolina wouldn’t find a goal in the run of play during the first 105 minutes of the match.
Of course, in order to play such stifling defense, they were forced to give up on their offense. Through 120 minutes, Reign FC managed just 7 shots with 4 on goal. One of those four did find the back of the net, but they were widely outclassed by the 34 shots with 14 on goal for the Courage. From our perspective, this was a very typical game for the home team. They could easily have scored 10 goals with a bit more shooting touch, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce the right way. Murphy came up with an incredible 11 saves on the game, but her three misses were ultimately costly. As the game ticked past 80 minutes, the teams were still knotted at nil-nil, but Heather O’Reilly was destined to change that.
A miracle and a disaster
As time was winding down, Courage head coach Paul Riley refused to use his substitutes. The starting XI played through the entire regulation, even after the Courage scored their go-ahead goal in the 86th minute.
The goal came on one of the most uncontroversial penalties that was given all season. The ball was crossed in from the right side of the box, and Reign defender Lauren Barnes attempted to make a sliding block. Instead, the ball caught her upstretched arm and the referee gave a well-deserved penalty. Unexpectedly, it was HAO who stepped up to take the kick for the Courage. In the post-game presser, Paul Riley explained the decision, stating that they had been practicing penalties for about 8 weeks at this point and that he could swear that HAO was 60 of 60 on her attempts. True to that prognostication, O’Reilly stepped up to the ball after a long pause and watched the ball ripple the back of the net. Murphy jumped left and the ball went right.
It felt like the weight was lifted, and the Courage opted to just boom the ball forward for the next 6 minutes instead of trying to control the ball. This ended up being a terrible mistake.
The clock ticked slowly towards the end of the match. It passed the 90-minute mark, and the referee gave a reasonable three extra minutes to close out the match. Frustratingly, Riley opted not to waste time by substituting. If he had, the Courage probably would have carried their 1-0 win into the finals. Instead, a throw-in from Steph Catley ended up at the feet of Iffy Onumonu who blew past a flat-footed Abby Erceg and slipped the ball past Stephanie Labbe as she blocked the near post. The stadium went deathly silent as the whistle blew to end regulation.
Conditioning won the game
The five-minute break between the end of the game and regulation were painful, but when the Courage took the pitch again they looked revived. In the 96th minute, Jess McDonald was replaced by 2019 hero Kristen Hamilton. Then in the 99th minute, Debinha, who was celebrating her birthday with a playoff match, took a dive. The flop fooled our head ref, and she took a beautifully bent shot that went over the wall and into the back of the net. It was a game-winning goal, but the Courage weren’t done.
In the 102nd minute, Denise O’Sullivan was subbed out for McCall Zerboni, and in the added time at the end of the first extra-time period, it was the Reign who scored the next goal. Unfortunately for the visitors, they scored it against the wrong keeper. This time Barnes attempted to clear a low cross, but the ball hit off her toe, bounced off the inside heel of Murphy, and dribbled into the back of the net. The Courage took that 3-1 lead into the break between extra-time periods, but they weren’t done yet.
The final nail was beaten down in the 107th minute by Crystal Dunn. The Reign had effectively stopped playing at this point. A clearance by Murphy sailed toward midfield, but Sam Mewis was there to play an uncontested header forward. Dunn was the only player near the ball, so she dribbled forward and powered the ball past the defeated Reign goalkeeper. It was the last goal of the game, and both teams seemed perfectly content to drag the game to its end.
The Red Stars come to town
In the second match of the night, the Chicago Red Stars snuck past Portland Thorns FC in Bridgeview, IL. The lone goal of that match was scored in the first 10 minutes by superstar Sam Kerr. Now the Courage will face one of their toughest foes next Sunday in the Championship game. The Courage did not beat the Red Stars this season, and Chicago is the only team in the league with a winning record against the Courage. It should be a phenomenal match.