The North Carolina Courage took sole control of first place in the NWSL Challenge Cup on Wednesday night, beating the Washington Spirit 2-0 behind two goals from striker Lynn Williams.
Entering Wednesday’s game, the Courage and Spirit were tied atop the Challenge Cup table after both won their opening game 2-1. The win puts the Courage in the driver's seat for the top seed entering the knockout round as Washington was the only other team able to secure a win in their opening game.
Williams' pair of goals came early in the second half with the forward breaking the deadlock in the 50th minute and doubling the lead in the 61st minute. The goals were Williams’ second and third of the tournament as she scored the winner in the Courage’s opening game of the Challenge Cup.
The opening goal required a bit of luck as Williams was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce following a Samantha Staab slide tackle that ricocheted off Wiliams’ leg and into open space. Williams turned the afterburners on and broke away before cutting in and beating the keeper at her near post with a left-footed effort.
The second goal was pure poacher’s instinct as Williams made a late cut to the back post and redirected a Debinha cross into the side netting with an outstretched foot.
Courage head coach Paul Riley made five changes to his lineup from the 2-1 win over the Portland Thorns with the majority of the changes coming in his midfield box with Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan and Crystal Dunn being replaced by Cari Roccaro, Meredith Speck and Lauren Milliet. Center back Abby Dahlkmepr and striker Kristen Hamilton were also replaced by Kaleigh Kurtz and McKenzie Meehan, respectively.
After the previous two games of the NWSL Challenge Cup both ended as 0-0 draws, fans were hoping for and expecting plenty of goals between the two early front runners. While the first half disappointed in terms of goals, there were plenty of chances for both teams as they combined for 11 shots in the half.
“I think that the first part of the game we were trying to find our way,” Williams said in a postgame interview on the NWSL Twitch.tv channel. “We banged some balls over the top when we could have kept possession. But I think towards the end of the half you saw us settle in more, especially after that water break. The gaps opened up, our 10s got on the ball a bit more and we had some more chances.”
Debinha came closest for the Courage, clanging a curler off the post inside the opening five minutes of the game. The majority of Washington’s chances came from well outside the box but an early long shot from Andi Sullivan forced an early save out of Courage starting keeper Stephanie Labbe.
Out of the break Riley decided to go to his bench, bringing in his three star midfielders. Mewis and O’Sullivan took up their usual positions at the base of midfield, replacing Rocarro and Speck, but instead of coming in opposite Debinha at attacking mid, Dunn replaced Meehan, lining up beside Williams up top.
Hamilton and Hailie Mace also came off the bench in the second half, replacing Milliet and Williams in the 68th and 72nd minute, respectively. With Hamilton entering the game, Dunn shifted back to her normal position as one of the attacking midfielders.
The Courage will next take the field on July 5 at 12:30 p.m. against the Chicago Red Stars in a rematch of the 2019 NWSL Championship. The game will be broadcast on CBS All Access.