The NC Courage took down the Houston Dash in a seven-goal thriller on Friday night by a score of 5-2.
“Tonight we put the ball in the net,” NC Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “[Kristen] Hamilton was on fire, when she was injured last week, that hurt us a lot.”
Forward Kristen Hamilton started the game on fire and stayed burning throughout the match, nearly scoring just 18 seconds into the game before going on to score four goals in the game, giving the striker her second hat trick of the season.
Hamilton’s first goal came in the fifth minute as part of a rampant start for the Courage. Defender Merritt Mathias broke away from a defender on the right wing and put a low cross into the box, finding a sliding Hamilton who put the Courage up 1-0.
“We talked about the first 20 minutes a lot,” Riley said. “Every time we have been up in the first 20 minutes we have won the game. I think over the last two years we are probably 23-0 when we have scored first. That’s a really important part of the game”
Hamilton echoed her coach’s sentiment about the importance of scoring early.
“It was good to just get on the board early,” Hamilton said. “I think that is something we talked about. We hadn’t done that in awhile, just score early and set the tone for the game.”
The onslaught continued in the 17th minute as Hamilton got her second goal of the night. Defender Jae Hinkle played a wonderful ball up to Hamilton who rushed past one defender before cutting back with a fake shot and leveling a shot into the top corner for her second goal of the game.
Houston pulled one back in the 24th minute however on a goal by Kristie Mewis, sister of NC Courage and USWNT player Sam Mewis. Mewis fired home from the top of the box after a pass by forward Kyah Simon.
Forward Lynn Williams restored the two-goal lead in the 31st minute. A Dash clearance was blocked by midfielder Denise O’Sullivan and the forward picked up the ball just in front of the Dash defense. Pushing it past one defender Williams got into the penalty box and chipped the ball over the onrushing keeper.
“We pressured them, [O’Sullivan] stepped up and it deflected straight to me,” Williams said. “I turned and saw that there was space so I pushed it past her. The goalie was going down quickly so I just chipped it high.”
The Dash pulled another goal back in the 43rd minute. Simon broke away from the Courage back line after a long through ball, Simon then slotted the ball past Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland.
“Our midfield was all over the place in the first half,” Riley said. “We gave a couple soft goals up, but in the second half they got a grip. McCall and Sullivan got a grip of the game...Debinha was fantastic second half. Lauren Milliet got her first game, it was good to get her some minutes.”
Riley went to his bench to start the second half pulling forward Leah Pruitt and bringing on midfielder Lauren Milliet for her professional debut.
With the substitution came a change in formation, the Courage started the match in a 4-3-3 but with Milliet’s introduction the team switched to a 4-2-2-2 with captain McCall Zerboni and O’Sullivan playing in the holding mid spots, Williams and Hamilton playing as a striking duo and Brazilian winger Debinha and Milliet as the wide midfielders.
“We felt that their two sixes were getting too open,” Riley said. “We made the substitution with Leah and what we tried to do was rotate Sullivan up, rotate McCall up, one of the two of them, and the other would drop onto Mewis, so we could stop them from delivering the long balls. That’s really what hurt us in the first half.”
The second half strike partnership combined to give the Courage a two goal lead in the 54th minute. Williams fed the ball into Hamilton’s feet who proceeded to spin her defender and slot the ball into the back of the net. The play was an excellent showing of control by Hamilton, both with her first touch off the pass and to spin the defender.
The assist for Williams marked the 23rd of her NWSL career, a record for the league.
“I think it is an amazing achievement,” Williams said. “I was shocked because that’s not something that I really keep tally of. I don't really know how many goals I get or how many assists I have. I just wanna play for my teammates.”
Hamilton added a fourth goal in the 71st minute to put the Courage up 5-2 when Debinha found the forward as she cut in from the right wing. After receiving the ball Hamilton took a couple of touch to make space for the shot before firing into near post. The four-goal haul by Hamilton equals Australia and Chicago Red Stars’ forward Sam Kerr for most goals by a single playing in an NWSL match.
The Courage were the dominant side in the match but the stats made the game appear much closer than it was. The Dash rattled off nine shots compared the the Courage’s 12 and the Dash also held a majority of the possession at 54%, but the Courage ran out with all three points.
The victory moved the Courage up into first in the standings, tied with Portland on points, but ahead on goal difference. The Thorns have yet to play this weekend and another three teams could pass the Courage in the table depending on results over the weekend as just two points separates the Courage and the fifth-place Utah Royals.
Tonight’s win bucked a trend for the Courage this season as their home form has been rather poor. Including tonight’s game the team is 2-0-4 at home this season.
“We have been a bit lax at home,” Riley said. “When we have come out and come through the motions first. We have let other teams dictate the slow tempo and slow us down. I kept telling them ‘don’t let them slow us down’.
For Riley, this comes down to the way teams line up against them, as the reigning champions many teams come to Sahlen’s and decide to sit in and hope for a draw.
“I think it has been very difficult at home,” Riley said. “Sky Blue came in low block, Utah scored low black straight away, Portland came in scored low block straight away. It's been very difficult to break teams down. They have gotten the first goal, they have been waiting for that little mistake. Most of the goals have been mistakes of ours and these teams are going to do that. That’s why I give a lot of respect to Manchester City, it is not easy when you have a target on your back."
The Courage’s next match will be at home on Saturday July 13 against the Seattle Reign, kick off is set for 7:00 p.m..