The North Carolina Courage continued their winning ways in a fairly pedestrian 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC last night. The Courage are favorites each time they hit the pitch, but last night Sky Blue had an even tougher time than normal. The Courage came into the match undefeated and on six days of rest while the challengers had played their last game just three days earlier. It took just seven minutes for Sam Mewis to register the opening goal of the match, and Crystal Dunn sealed the deal with a second goal in the second half. With the win, the Courage are set to play Portland Thorns FC in the first round of the knockout stage.
A dominant performance from the starters
In true Paul Riley fashion, the Courage started this game with their best starting eleven despite having the #1 seed already locked down. It was clear that Sky Blue was overmatched from the first minute, and they gave up a series of three corner kicks in quick succession that led to Mewis’ opening goal.
The Courage continued to dominate until around the 25-minute mark, but things got sluggish and chippy as both sides lost a bit of their fitness in the thin Utah air. Neither side had a truly good shot on net for the remainder of the first half.
The Courage came out in the second half reenergized, though, and a poor defensive effort left Crystal Dunn with the ball at the top of the 18. She got her first goal of the tournament in the 56th minute, and both teams more or less shut down after that.
In the 64th minute, Riley made four subs to give his star players rest after their dominant performance to that point in the game. Lynn Williams, Mewis, Debinha, and Dunn were all subbed out simultaneously, and the game really broke down. For the final 30 minutes, Sky Blue was the marginally better team on the pitch, but in some respects that is expected when four of the best players in the league are subbed off together.
The positive moment from the final half hour was getting to see Jess McDonald back on the pitch after working through a thigh injury all tournament. In top form she probably could have added a goal late in the match to make it 3-0 for the Courage, but it was still great seeing her back out there. The 2-0 loss dropped Sky Blue down to 7th in the standings.
On to Portland for the knockouts
In the early afternoon game, Portland Thorns FC played a mind-numbing 0-0 draw against OL Reign to ensure that they would end up as the 8th seed. Since the Courage had already clinched the 1 seed, that guaranteed that there would be a rematch from the first game of the tournament when the Courage won 2-1 on broadcast TV over Portland. Lindsay Horan was unable to participate in Portland’s final qualification stage match, and Portland will have little hope of beating the Courage later this week if she cannot make a return. Here is the full league bracket:
Other than the Courage, the Washington Spirit are the only team in the league to have registered two wins in their four qualification games. They also only lost to the Courage, and it seems like they are the odds-on favorites to meet the Courage in the final.
The Courage will have a pair of tough matches to get there, though. Portland and North Carolina have a contentious history, and Utah always plays the Courage tough. Check back in on Friday for the next match featuring the best women’s soccer team in the world.