On Saturday afternoon, professional team sports returned to the US as the NC Courage beat the Portland Thorns 2-1 in the opening game of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
With the spotlight on them, the players took an opportunity to make a statement during the national anthem as each player wore Black Lives Matter shirts and arm bands while taking a knee during the anthem. After which the clubs released this joint statement from the players.
“We want to keep this momentum and keep the attention on the Black Lives Matter movement throughout this tournament,” midfielder Sam Mewis said. “I think that our team is doing what we can to help maintain that momentum by putting on an auction to benefit National Black Justice Coalition and we are really proud of ourselves for being able to put that on, it is honoring both Black Lives and Pride. Today, hopefully, was a powerful statement. It was an emotional time and I hope that both teams’ message comes through clearly.”
The game was played without fans in attendance, which created a slightly different atmosphere for players during the game.
“It was actually still really intense,” Mewis said. “We could hear the benches a lot which is almost more intense, because you know if the other team is cheering they have some momentum, if our team is cheering we have some momentum. The atmosphere was definitely really intense and exciting.”
The winning goal came a few minutes into stoppage time as striker Lynn Williams, who had struggled to convert her shots all game, got on the end of a cross from Mewis, heading the ball by the Thorns’ rookie goalkeeper.
“It was a good goal to win it, let's be fair, by two very good players,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “I thought it was a great game. I thought we dominated the majority of the game. The midfield was fantastic. [Denise O’Sullivan] and Sam got a grip of the game early in the game.”
The game’s first two goals came just five minutes apart as attacking midfielder Debinha headed the Courage into the lead in the 75th minute and Simone Charley poked one in front point-blank range to equalize for the Thorns in the 80th minute.
Riley was able to use an almost unchanged starting lineup from his go-to XI in the 2019 season with just right back Marritt Mathias and striker Jessica McDonald missing due to injury. Replacing the duo were striker Kristen Hamilton, who scored nine goals (joint-third most in the league) in 22 appearances last season, and rookie right back Addisyn Merrick who the Courage selected in the fourth round (28th pick) of the 2020 NWSL College Draft.
The rookie impressed in her debut on both ends of the field. While she was not the attacking force on the right flank like Jaelene Daniels (formerly Hinkle) was on the left, the former Kansas Jayhawk was decent when she did go forward and was excellent on the defensive side, highlighted by a stunning slide tackle in the box to recover the ball after she was beat on the dribble.
The two teams remained locked at 0-0 at the half but the Courage came closest to scoring in the half, outshooting the Thorns 9-2.
The Courage’s main attacking threat in the first half came from Williams, the team’s leading scorer from last season, but the forward struggled to convert her chances. The best chance for Williams came in the form of a 2-on-1 breakaway with Hamilton but Williams chose to go it alone and skied the shot over the bar.
Riley handed another rookie their debut in the second half with first-round draft pick forward Ally Watt being one of a pair of substitutes made by Riley in the 57th minute. Watt replaced Hamilton in the attack while defender Cari Roccaro replaced Merrick.
Watt was unfortunately stretchered off the field not long after she came on, with the first-round draft pick pulling up and grabbing the back side of her leg after making a run towards the goal. Hallie Mace replaced Watt after the injury and she made an immediate impact.
Just minutes after coming into the game, Mace delivered an inch-perfect cross into the box which Debinha got to just before the goalkeeper to score the opening goal of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.
It did not take long for the Thorns to equalize as a header went just over Courage starting keeper Stephanie Labbe’s head and off the bar. It looked like Labbe managed to reach back and clear it off the line but Charley managed to bundle it over the line.
With the late winner from Williams, the Courage managed to secure all three points in the first game of the group stage of the tournament.
The next game of the NWSL Challenge Cup for the Courage will be on July 1 against the Washington Spirit. The game will kick off at 10 p.m. eastern time and can be watched on CBS All Access. The full tournament schedule can be found here.