The North Carolina Courage went into the NWSL Challenge Cup considered the clear-cut favorite to win the competition, and Saturday the reigning NWSL champions showed why.
The Courage defeated the Portland Thorns, 2-1, in the NWSL Challenge Cup opener, with Lynn Williams delivering a 94th-minute winner.
With time winding down, Courage midfielder Sam Mewis received a pass and dribbled to the right corner flag. Mewis lofted a cross to Williams who managed to power a header past rookie Thorns keeper Bella Bixby.
Bixby started in place of USWNT player Adrianna Franch and collected four crucial saves in the process.
However, the goal felt well-deserved for Williams, who had broken free for goal-scoring opportunities throughout the game, but could not find her scoring touch until her final effort of the afternoon. The Mewis-to-Williams connection started long before the opening match, as the two players trained together as roommates leading up to the tournament.
“For weeks it was just me and her passing to each other,” said Mewis in a post-game interview. Before teams were allowed to participate in full-team training, players could only train with their roommates.
“When we’re down, we are always going to keep fighting back,” said Williams. “I think we do have some things to work on. But overall, if you can win while improving, that’s an amazing thing.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing for the champions. Despite Debinha finishing a well-placed cross from substitute Hallie Mace to commence the scoring in the 75th minute, Portland responded just minutes later. Simone Charley, in the middle of frantic play inside the Courage six yard box, slotted home the rebound of a Lindsey Horan header to level the score at 1-1.
North Carolina held a 15-10 shots advantage over Portland, while also enjoying a 5-3 shots on target edge. USWNT players Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, and Becky Sauerbrunn played the full match, while North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn was subbed off in the 65th minute.
Both teams took a knee during the national anthem while wearing Black Lives Matters t-shirts in support of the ongoing social justice movement in the United States.
“We took a knee today to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America. We love our country and we have taken this opportunity to hold it to a higher standard. It is our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms this nation was founded upon are extended to everyone,” the Thorns and Courage said in a joint statement released before the game.
Lavelle leads Spirit past Red Stars
In Saturday’s evening match, Rose Lavelle and Ashley Hatch of the Washington Spirit tallied goals to overpower the Chicago Red Stars by a score of 2-1.
Lavelle controlled the game from midfield by being at the forefront of the Spirit’s best chances. In the 8th minute, the Cincinnati playmaker dribbled at full speed towards the Red Star’s goal, before sending a perfectly weighted through ball to Hatch. Alyssa Naeher blocked Hatch’s initial effort with a kick save, but Rose Lavelle followed her pass and proceeded to send a rocket past Naeher.
Naeher came up with important saves all night – including a breakaway opportunity that Lavelle aimed too close to the keeper – though a mistake just 20 seconds into the second half defined the match’s scoreline. After receiving a back-pass, the USWNT keeper was too slow to find a teammate up the field. Hatch caught the keeper sleeping, blocked the clearance, and scored on an open net.
Morgan Gautrat, formerly Morgan Brian, earned a consolation goal just five minutes later with a low, driven shot to the bottom left corner. Washington’s goalie, Aubrey Bledsoe, secured the victory with a huge, one-handed save in the 89th minute against Bianca St. Georges.
Emotions were running high before the match, as Julie Ertz comforted teammate Casey Short as she cried during the national anthem. Similar to the tournament’s first game, both teams kneeled out of respect for the Black Lives Matter movement.
A notable player omission was defender Tierna Davidson, the youngest person on the 2019 USWNT roster. Davidson was ruled out with a leg injury.
North Carolina and Washington will attempt to continue their winning ways on Wednesday, July 1 at 10 p.m. in a battle of two undefeated teams. Portland will play the Chicago the same day at 12:30 p.m. as both teams seek their first points of the competition. The games will be aired on CBS All-Access.