In front of a home crowd of over 5,000 people at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, the North Carolina Courage won its first game of the International Champions Cup 2-1 over Manchester City in a thrilling come-from-behind affair.
Forward Jessica McDonald took the top off the defense three minutes into penalty time and poked a shot past the MCFC goalkeeper for soccer’s version of a walk-off.
“Once the ball came to my feet I knew I had to go to the goal at that point,” McDonald said. “I knew there were only seconds left.”
With the clock winding down in penalty time, left back Jaelene Hinkle seized control of a loose ball on the Courage third and sent a long, high-arching pass over the midfield line and to the feet of McDonald.
McDonald possessed the ball and outraced two MCFC defenders to the goal, narrowly slipping a shot past the goalkeeper for the game-winning goal to send the Courage to the ICC championship match for the second year in a row.
“[Hinkle and McDonald] kind of locked eyes and she knew immediately what to do and I knew immediately what to do,” McDonald said. “It was just one of those hail mary, all-or-nothing moments.”
Manchester City, champions of the FA Women’s Super League, came close to opening up the scoring in the 20th minute, as forward Janine Beckie’s shot from inside the box was narrowly saved by Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland.
The two champions of their respective leagues traded shots for much of an action-packed first half, and in the 42nd minute, MCFC struck first. Forward Georgia Stanway avoided a tackle attempt by defender Abby Erceg and ripped a shot that found the back of the net and gave the Sky Blue a 1-0 lead heading into halftime.
Despite being outshot by the Courage 15-7, Manchester City dominated possession in the first half, holding possession for 63.7% of the half and firmly looking like the best team on the pitch.
A corner in the 67th minute gave the Courage another excellent chance but forward Sam Mewis’ pass into the box was headed away, and midfielder Heather O’Reilly’s ensuing shot off the rebound was deflected.
Brazilian midfielder Debinha nearly tied the match up in the 72nd minute with a low strike towards the left post, but MCFC goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck’s diving save kept the champions from Europe in the lead.
Inclement weather struck in the 76th minute and the teams and fans were forced to exit the stadium and wait in a weather delay. An hour and 12 minutes later the two teams took the field and the Courage came out firing.
“That is the incredible thing about this team,” McDonald said. “We can face so much adversity but we adjust so well to it.”
Soon after play resumed, another chance fell flat for the Courage in the 81st minute, as a sharp cross into the box from midfielder Julia Spetsmark found the right foot of midfielder McKenzie Meehan whose shot was turned away by the goalkeeper.
Just three minutes later Meehan found redemption when a missed header by Erceg fell right at Meehan’s feet. The 24-year-old immediately ripped a shot into the top corner of the goal, finding the back of the net and evening the score at 1-1.
“I took one touch and basically [kicked] it as hard as I could,” Meehan said. “I saw the girls running toward me so I just wanted to make sure I got the shot off before they got there.”
The Courage responded to the turn in momentum, quickly moving on from the emotional high of tying the game up so late, and directed a flurry of shots towards the goal over the final 10 minutes of the game.
“Once we tied it up 1-1 [the team] was kind of like ‘oh my gosh we have to go through with this and win the game’,” Meehan said. “Everyone got back on the same page to go win the game.”
With the win, the Courage will face Olympique Lyonnais in the final in a rematch of last year’s final on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Sahlen’s Stadium.