It shouldn’t have taken until stoppage time for the Courage to seal this game but that’s what happened. Lynn Williams found the winner in the 93rd minute after Debinha had opened the scoring and Simone Charley had equalized for Portland Thorns FC. The North Carolina Courage had created the better chances in the first match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup but could not find the back of the net until Williams’ late winner.
The match started with players kneeling during the national anthem and just before kick off in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
After that, it was game on and the Courage were dominant for the first 15 minutes. Lynn Williams had the best chances of the first half as time and time again, she found the room to run towards goal but she could not finish as efficiently as many watching would have liked. Portland’s goalkeeper, Bella Bixby, was also having a great game as she blocked shot after shot from the Courage.
The biggest chance of the game came in the 25th minute when some lovely play by Crystal Dunn allowed Williams and Kristen Hamilton to break quickly in a two-on-one situation against Portland. Instead of picking the unselfish option and squaring the ball to Hamilton, who had only the goalkeeper to beat, Williams elected to go by her defender and go for goal herself. It was a poor choice as she ended up punting her shot into the stands, much to the frustration of Courage fans watching everywhere.
Once the second half started, it seemed as though the Thorns had benefited the most from the break. North Carolina looked sluggish and not as fluid as we’ve often seen them be, which allowed Portland to build their own attacks that were becoming more dangerous as the half wore on. The Courage were also struggling with corner kicks, as Portland seemingly also had a player free inside the box at every set piece opportunity. As the game wore on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Portland would perform the perfect ‘smash and grab’ because that’s how the momentum was suggesting. Instead, it was the Courage who found the opening goal.
75 minutes in, substitute Hallie Mace, who Paul Riley is determined to play up front, found space out wide and picked out Debinha with a great cross. The small Brazilian beat her marker with her near post run and headed home from close range. It was nothing more than the Courage had deserved especially after their first half performance.
The good mood didn’t last long though. Portland’s own substitutions made their own impact five minutes later. Lindsey Horan, Portland’s best player today, got her head onto a cross which came off the crossbar after Stephanie Labbé tried to tip it over. Labbé couldn’t gather the rebound and substitute Simone Charley forced the ball home from right on the goal line.
After that goal, both teams just went bonkers looking for the win, disregarding any tactical shape which made for a more open spectacle. Both sides created openings but the rust from not having played a competitive match in so long was showing in the final pass/final decision-making. That was a good thing for the Courage as Portland failed to find a winner before they could. Samantha Mewis, who had had a quiet game by her standards, suddenly showed her quality by side stepping past Becky Sauerbrunn before slowing down to find a teammate inside the box. Her cross was inch perfect and all Williams had to do was keep her header on target. She did, and the Courage got their stoppage time winner.
That wasn’t the best performance we’ve ever seen by North Carolina but for the first game in almost a year? Well, you can’t complain about the result. Three points is three points no matter how they come.
One unfortunate thing that came out of the game was rookie Ally Watt’s knee injury. She had only been on the field for a few minutes before she went down clutching her lower leg. She was stretchered off and although the extent of the injury is unknown at the moment, Paul Riley did indicate that it was knee injury in his post-match conference. We wish her the best of luck and hope to see her back on the field soon.