In a hostile environment and at altitude, the North Carolina Courage came back to beat Utah Royals FC after going down by a goal in the 13th minute on Saturday night. You can contribute pretty much the entire win to the tireless work of Kristen Hamilton, who has finally reached her potential after six years in the league. With a goal and assist on the night, Hamilton maintains her spot as the second leading goalscorer in the National Women’s Soccer League. The Courage sit one point behind Portland Thorns FC on the league table after their win tonight.
It was hard to know what to expect going into this game. Hamilton started the match with Lynn Williams sidelined with a hamstring injury, but I think we should see Hammy starting even if Williams is healthy. In the midfield, McCall Zerboni started the game on the bench for the first time while healthy. All of North Carolina’s USWNT players were back in the starting lineup against Utah.
An evenly matched first half and a determined Hamilton
The game started with a scary moment where Utah took the ball down the left side of the field, playing past defender Merritt Mathias as they often would, and letting Press nearly get in with a play on goal. Fortunately, nothing would come of it. Then, just 20 seconds later, the Courage played a ball through that Utah goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart got to, but it slipped out of her grasp at the edge of the penalty box. The ball made it to Jess McDonald, but the defense closed down well and prevented a shot. In less than one minute, the game had already seen two near goals.
The Courage continued to play well offensively, despite a few misses on the final ball, but the aggression would let them down in the 13th minute. With most of the team walking back to the defensive half after a foul, Utah played the ball quickly and found midfielder Vero Boquete. She sliced past Denise O’Sullivan and sent the ball to Press in the seam between Mathias and Abby Dahlkemper. Instead of trying to split the defenders, Press pulled back and ran parallel to the top of the 18-yard box, realized she had ample space, and took a curling shot to the far right side of the goal. It looked like goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe didn’t realize the ball was going in, because she jogged along towards the ball and watched as it rippled side netting. It was a great shot, but the laziness of the Courage goalkeeping this season has been a major factor in too many games.
Luckily for North Carolina, Hamilton is just a straight beast right now. Utah had a few dangerous opportunities on attack, and there was this weird sequence where an indirect free kick was given in the box for the Courage, but the game seemed to be ticking towards a 1-0 Utah lead going into the half. Then Hammy worked her magic. Sam Mewis, after forcing a turnover, sent a ridiculously hard pass to Hamilton in the box. In a stroke of brilliance, She popped the ball up into the air with her shoulder, and volleyed the ball past defender Rachel Corsie and off the hand of Barnhart into the goal. It was ridiculous and accurately represents the difficulty of scoring on the Utah defense.
When the second half started, Utah midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta had an early chance that nearly caught Labbe off guard. With both Press and Amy Rodriguez charging the Courage back line, LaBonta was given space, and she took a cracking shot from the top of the 18. Luckily, Labbe palmed the ball over the goal and then caught the ensuing corner kick.
A turnover would give the Courage the lead early in the second half. Debinha managed to poke the ball away from a Utah player in the Courage half of the field, and it rolled right to the feet of Jaelene Hinkle. Hinkle sent a long pass up the field to Hamilton, who rolled off of her defender and somehow outran everyone to get faced up with Barnhart. She considered taking the shot herself, but instead waited until the defense closed down on her before passing centrally to McDonald. Her first touch was a bit heavy, but McDonald still managed to finish the opportunity and the Courage took the lead and would hold it through the end of the match.
This game was so much better
North Carolina really played poorly in their first game after the World Cup players returned last weekend against the Chicago Red Stars, but this was so much better. There were certainly times when things looked a bit disconnected between players and Mewis is still trying to find the right weight on her passes, but all-in-all this was a world of difference.
The Courage were able to dominate the middle of the field. Utah had moments where they were able to string together a dangerous number of passes, but those times were much more limited than last weekend. There are still moments in transition where the outside backs get caught way too far forward, but both center backs played much better in this game and nobody on Utah has quite the nose for goal that Sam Kerr does, so the end result was a much happier one.
And really, this was one of the most important games left on the calendar for the Courage. The Courage gave themselves some breathing room and pushed back one of their closest contenders all in one night. There are still a lot of really tough games to look forward to on the schedule, including two games in Portland and one more in Utah, but finding a way to come back and win on the road against one of the best teams in the league is a huge confidence builder. Unfortunately, the Courage will be missing their USWNT players once again for the game next weekend against the Washington Spirit, but at least we got a nice win in Utah to build some momentum.