After picking up their first win of the regular season last weekend with an emphatic 5-0 victory over Racing Louisville, the NC Courage were brought back down to earth, losing 1-0 to a suffocating Chicago Red Stars side.
In the pre-match press conference, Courage head coach Paul Riley said the midfield battle was where the game would be won or lost and his assumption was proven true. Chicago won 55 duels compared to the Courage’s 37. North Carolina simply had no time on the ball and it showed, especially in the first half, with the Courage constantly giving away sloppy passes in their own half.
“It was definitely lost in the midfield today, for sure,” Riley said. “I think our midfield is still on the bus to be honest with you. It was a poor performance. Never really got going. First half, they dominated. Good game plan, they forced us down the left hand side and we just couldn't get the ball into the box at all, the box couldn't get on the ball at all.”
The Courage’s midfield was its weakest point during the opening half. Chicago was winning all of the battles and held the Courage to 69.2 pass accuracy, nearly 10 percentage points lower than its lowest 90-minute percentage so far this season. While the Red Stars’ first-half pass accuracy was actually slightly lower, they turned their possession into 13 shots, while North Carolina managed just two, neither of which tested Alyssa Naeher.
“More so than lambaste our group, is to give [Chicago] credit,” Riley said. “I thought they were really good in the midfield and they came with a good game plan: win the ball, get it forward quickly, break lines and get [Mallory Pugh] at us, get [Kealia Watt] at us, and they did that and those two created some great chances for them. We didn't create anything, we didn't deserve to win the game. It was a fair result in the end to be perfectly honest with you. We were never at the races.”
The Courage did well to bend without breaking in the game’s first half-hour, but a looping header caught Casey Murphy in an awkward spot, gifting the Red Stars a tap-in on the rebound.
As poor as the Courage’s midfield was in the opening 30 minutes, Abby Erceg and Diane Caldwell, in just their second start together, did really well to keep Chicago off the board for as long as they did. A mix of last-ditch defending from those two and some excellent saves from Murphy, were the only reasons the Courage weren’t down by two or three goals when Rachel Hill finally did score.
“They did get left out to dry a few times,” Riley said. “In all fairness, some of their distribution wasn't great either. They got picked off quite a bit, looking in holes too long, looking at players too low, no disguise on it. They did get picked off and they got ran at. They did well with it. I guess you could say they handled it pretty well. But it was a good test for us today.... If anyone's written Chicago off for the league, they're out of their minds, because they’re top, top team and they have a top, top coach.”
The Courage gave the ball away less following the halftime break, but still struggled to get much going on the offensive side of the ball. As the second half progressed, they got better, and even tested Naeher, but still couldn’t generate any clear-cut chances.
The Courage used all five of their subs with Hailie Mace, Kristen Hamilton, Ryan Williams, Cari Roccaro and Brittany Ratcliffe all making second-half appearances. The subs, especially Hamilton and Mace, made really positive impacts off the bench in helping the Courage’s attack get into the game.
“As a sub, you have a limited amount of time, say 15, 20, 30 minutes,” Ratcliffe said. “So you need to give it everything you have. In a game, when you're down 1-0, you just have to give everything you got, whether that's going along, whether that's shooting, just doing the best you can, and then hoping the chips fall where they may. Hoping you get lucky. So I feel like the subs when they came on, we brought that energy because we were able to see what was working and what wasn't working in the game.”
Despite mounting a late comeback attempt that saw them go very direct in the closing stages, the Courage were still outshot 15-10 and managed just one shot on target, the lowest single-game total in the team’s history.
Due to the international break, the Courage’s next game will not be until June 19, when they return home to face Pack Pro Tziarra King and OL Reign. After the way Chicago was able to beat the Courage, the international break could prove to be a good reset point for North Carolina.
“It stinks to go into this break with a loss,” Ratcliffe said. “It doesn't leave a good feeling in our mouths. It's not something we accept, but I think it gives us an opportunity to meditate on this game, see what we did wrong, see what didn't work and be like, ‘Okay, shake it off.’ We go into practice on Monday, and it's a new week. But we don't forget this game. It kind of lights a fire in us that, ‘Hey, that's not going to happen again.’”