The North Carolina Courage wrapped up the preliminary round of the NWSL Challenge Cup with a 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC.
With four wins from as many games in the preliminary round, the Courage looks strong heading into the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup. Across the four games the Courage scored seven goals and conceded just one, both tournament bests.
Midfielder Sam Mewis got the scoring going early for the Courage, a first in the tournament as it had yet to score a first-half goal so far. In just the 8th minute Mewis got to a loose ball in the box following a corner and drilled it through a crowd, giving Kailen Sheridan no chance in the Sky Blue net.
Despite 12 first-half shots (six on target), the Courage took just a 1-0 lead into the break. But it did not take long for the Courage to double its advantage in the second half with midfielder Crystal Dunn scoring her first goal of the Challenge Cup in the 56th minute.
Shortly after the goal, Courage head coach Paul Riley made four subs, the biggest of which saw forward Jessica McDonald make her first appearance of the Challenge Cup. McDonald was listed as questionable (right thigh) but if she is able to play consistent minutes in the knockout round, it will be a big boost to an attack seemingly already firing on all cylinders.
While the game was merely a formality for the Courage, as it secured the top seed earlier in the week thanks to other teams’ results, Riley wasn’t pulling any punches with his lineup heading into the final game of the preliminary round.
Just normal starting keeper Stephanie Labbe, listed on the injury report as questionable (general medical), was missing from an otherwise identical starting XI to the one fielded by Riley in the opening game of the Challenge Cup.
The strong lineup isn’t a surprise as the Courage had eight days of rest coming into the game and it likely wanted to keep the momentum going heading into the knockout round.
“I give a lot of credit to the girls,” Mewis said in a post game interview on the NWSL’s official Twitch.tv channel. “That is just how we train and how we try to play all the time. Knowing, coming into this game, that we wanted to prepare ourselves for the rest of this tournament, we know that Sky Blue is a great team… We had to maintain that level of intensity in order to get the result.”
The Courage will face the Portland Thorns in the first round of the knockout round on July 17 at 12:30 p.m., a rematch of the opening game of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
“Portland is a great team,” Mewis said. “We play them a lot and we play them in playoffs a lot so we know it is going to be a really tough game. Just continuing to stay focused on both ends of set pieces, we know that they are really good at those. Just focus up, rest up this week and get ready for the game. It is going to be a great match up.”