The North Carolina Courage played the very first game of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, and at 10:00 p.m. ET tonight they will play the final match of the qualification stage against Sky Blue FC. The Courage have already locked up the #1 seed in the tournament after registering three wins in their first three matches, but this will still be an important game to help head coach Paul Riley determine the best starting eleven heading into the knockout phase of the tournament.
The stakes are much higher for Sky Blue FC. They could finish anywhere from second to eighth pending the results of the match between Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign earlier in the day. New head coach Freya Coombe hopes to continue the magic after Paige Monaghan and Naho Kawasumi scored the team’s first two goals of the tournament in a big 2-0 win last Wednesday against the Houston Dash. Despite scoring just twice this tournament, Sky Blue is the only team other than North Carolina with a positive goal differential.
The Courage are still building fitness
In the prematch press conference, Riley once again emphasized that this match will be about building fitness for his players. The Courage are well known for being the best fit team in the league, and Riley has been known to bench players who do not return to the team at peak fitness for the high-press style of play that the team employs. The best example of this came in the 2019 ICC Women’s Tournament when Riley benched Abby Dahlkemper, fresh off of her World Cup title, because he didn’t feel like she had the necessary fitness to play the full 90 against Manchester City. In the press conference, the head coach specifically mentioned that Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis, two USWNT stars, were finally getting to 90 minutes fit.
The Courage will be getting Jess McDonald back for this match as well. The monolithic striker has been hampered with a right thigh injury to start the tournament and has yet to take the pitch. She will likely be a 20 to 30 minute player in this match.
It will be interesting to see who gets the start at right back for this match. Rookie Addisyn Merrick started the first two matches and played well, but she was replaced by Ryan Williams for the third game of the tournament. Interestingly, the Courage have listed Cari Roccaro as the expected starter at the position in their media match notes for all three games. Roccaro started the second match of the tournament at defensive midfield when Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan were given a rest.
After a tough first game, Lynn Williams has proved to be one of the brightest spots of the tournament. She has scored three goals in three games and looks like she could run for days. The pandemic came at a terrible time for Williams, who was finally working her way onto the USWNT under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski. She never quite got on with former manager Jill Ellis.
Sky Blue FC looks to build momentum
It’s very hard for any team to come into a match against the Courage and expect to leave in a better position than they started in, but that’s exactly what Sky Blue FC hopes to do tonight. Pending the outcome of the early game, Sky Blue would finish second in the standings with a win and could even finish third with a close loss. USWNT star Carli Lloyd opted out of the tournament, but that has probably been good for the team in terms of building for the future. The 37-year-old forward will not be around for long and the team needs to see what they have on the roster.
This match will be the first time that midfielder McCall Zerboni faces off against her former team. After a rough 2019 season coming back from injury, Zerboni was traded for the rights to forward Hailie Mace ahead of the 2020 season. She is one of the toughest defensive midfielders in the league and brings a level of leadership and toughness to SBFC that few other players could.
The biggest experiment taking place on the Sky Blue roster occurs on the defensive line where Midge Purce has been starting as RB for the team. Purce scored eight goals in 2019 as a forward for Portland, but she has a history of playing on defense in the past. Sky Blue has no true outside backs on the team, so Coombe has been testing out different combinations to see what will work best. In their only win, Imani Dorsy played opposite Purce as left back. If the Courage don plan properly, this use of forwards on the defensive line could cause trouble early in the game, especially considering that North Carolina typically plays very narrowly. The contrast of wing and central play will be and exciting dynamic to watch as this game unfolds.
How to watch
This match, like all of the preliminary round matches, will be broadcast on CBS All Access for domestic viewers and on Twitch for international viewers. Kick off is scheduled for 10:00 p.m. ET, so get your coffee brewing and settle in to watch an exciting night time match.