Warning: This article contains strong language in tweets from the players involved.
North Carolina Courage right back Merritt Mathias is out for the season after she suffered an ACL tear in the match against the Houston Dash on Tuesday night. It is a major loss for the Courage, who have been relying on Mathias as an offensive service machine and defensive scrapper.
The injury occurred during a weird sequence where the head referee called a foul against Mathias and then gave a yellow card to Houston forward Rachel Daly; Mathias remained down on the field for quite a while. Mathias played for about five minutes following the initial contact and had to be substituted out for Heather O’Reilly.
The rest of the game was a disaster. The referee gave a weak penalty kick to the Courage, who would win the game 1-0 thanks to that 87th-minute PK by Sam Mewis. The Houston Dash players went to the locker room and immediately took to Twitter to lambaste the refereeing. A few Courage players, including O’Reilly, responded to the complaints. O’Reilly would later delete her tweet, but the battle lines had been set. It wasn’t North Carolina’s fault that the poor call had been given, but that didn’t matter to the Dash players and fans.
Absolute bullshit. Referee threw the game...per usual. Check yourself @PROreferees— Amber Brooks (@abrooks22) September 18, 2019
And our Crystal Dunn, who drew the questionable foul in the box, fought back against the people complaining that she dove.
There was wayyy too much talk lastnight after the game and it was best i think before i tweet. So to everyone trying to discredit my character...you can fall back. Calls like lastnight occur all the time in our sport. I play the game and i dont make the calls.— Crystal Dunn Soubrier (@crysdunn_19) September 18, 2019
The Houston Dash came into the match with a very narrow path to their first playoff appearance, but the whole team has been lashing out against critics all year. The feeling of an undeserved loss seemed to strike a nerve with the Dash, and they were understandably frustrated by the result.
Then we all woke up to the following series of tweets from Mathias.
finishing my season with the @TheNCCourage. I will be getting surgery while my team takes on playoffs. It is because of your lack of respect, that I can respectfully say, Fuck You. pic.twitter.com/yV2ynrzFvK— Merritt Mathias (@merrbear11) September 19, 2019
It’s an impressive escalation of the situation. Watching the play a few times, it’s really a judgement call about the situation. Mathias and Daly are clearly fighting for position. The whistle was blown and Daly kicks out at Mathias, but the ball is clearly well out of her reach. I don’t think that Daly meant to hurt Mathias. She clearly didn’t purposefully tear her ACL, but it wasn’t a professional foul.
The league has an interesting task ahead. There are a lot of Houston players and coaches who tweeted negative feelings about the refs. Now Mathias responded with this very forceful reply. In a league where players a paid a healthy salary, like the NWSL, you can make fines and not look like a monster. Most of these NWSL players are netting $15-30k per year. It’s not like you can drop a $10k fine on someone who is barely making that much in a season.
What do the Courage do now
There are two ways for the Courage to progress now that Mathias is out for the season. The most likely is that Heather O’Reilly will step into that right back role. She played well on her celebration night, but that was against the Orlando Pride and she still looked a little worn down in the middle 30 minutes of the match.
The slightly less likely scenario would put second-year defender Ryan Williams as the primary Mathias replacement. In limited minutes during the World Cup, Ryan Williams did look acceptably good. She probably has a little more in her legs than O’Reilly, but she definitely lacks the offensive flair that HAO brings to the table.
Neither one of those changes will drastically change the Courage. Both women can step into the role and there will be a pair of excellent center backs behind whoever takes the spot. The Courage are all but guaranteed to have a home playoff game and an opportunity to play a home Championship, but like Mathias said, she’s going to be watching from a hospital bed for at least part of that journey.