No Merritt Mathias. No Crystal Dunn. No Lynn Williams. No problem.
The North Carolina Courage cruised to a massive 3-0 win over Utah Royals FC on Saturday night despite leaving three key pieces out of their starting lineup. In an effort to keep his players fresh, head coach Paul Riley opted to leave Williams and Dunn out of the starting lineup. Both players had been starters in the last four matches for the Courage. Mathias, on the other hand, is out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury.
Despite the three changes, this game felt like it was North Carolina’s to win from the opening minutes. Riley made a really smart decision when he put Sam Mewis up in the 10 role while dropping McCall Zerboni back into her more traditional 6 role. Throughout the season, Riley has tried to fit a square peg into a round hole by playing Zerboni as an attacking midfielder.
It looked like the Courage had opened the scoring in the 27th minute. Off of a corner kick, the ball was headed twice and appeared to cross the line before Utah goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart cleared it away.
Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long before getting a goal that counted. Just two minutes later, in the 29th minute, Royals defender Becky Sauerbrunn whiffed on a clearance attempt and instead took down Kristen Hamilton in the box. The penalty kick was awarded, but Sauerbrunn somehow wasn’t carded on the clear infraction. It probably should have been a straight red, but at least the Courage were awarded a penalty kick. Sam Mewis put the shot in the perfect spot at the bottom, left corner of the goal.
Unlike Tuesday night’s game, there was no anger about the given penalty in this match.
North Carolina remained the better team for the remainder of the fire half, and they nearly allowed an equalizer in the 52nd minute. Sauerbrunn, who scored in a recent match for URFC, came flying in unmarked on a corner kick. Her header was true, but Stephanie Labbe was in the right place at the right time and she was able to parry the shot away. Instead of getting an equalizer, the Royals got denied.
The next goal was a bit of a shross if there ever was one. Jaelene Hinkle scored her first ever goal as a NC Courage player when she sent a long searching ball into the box. Instead of curling out, the ball went straight on goal and Barnhart somehow whiffed the save to give the Courage a two-goal advantage.
It only took four more minutes for Dunn to pick off a terrible pass out of the back by Utah and slip the ball through to Debinha. The Brazilian midfielder sent the ball into the right side of the net and took the Courage lead to an insurmountable 3-0.
It’ll be a whole week before the Courage have to play again, but they’re already the NWSL Shield winners for the third season in a row. It’s an unprecedented run, and it ensures that the Courage will be at home for their semifinal playoff game. The Courage are also just three goals shy of the record that they set last season. Unfortunately, the Courage have already allowed two more goals in 2019 than they did in all of 2018, so they’re five goals behind their record of +36 goal difference in 24 matches.
Next up; the Washington Spirit next Saturday. The Courage have earned three points in all eight of their matches against the Spirit in team history.