After a back-and-forth first half and a tightly contested second half, the North Carolina Courage fell 2-1 to the Houston Dash on Saturday, July 17.
The loss is the Courage’s second in a row and fourth overall this season. Despite the result, Courage head coach Paul Riley said it was an improved performance from the 2-0 loss to Washington last weekend.
“Well, I think besides that first 15 minutes of the second half, we were really good,” Riley said. “But that 15 minutes cost us. We were complacent in that time. Looked lackadaisical, like we were still in the locker room to be honest with you. I think they had three or four corners leading into the goal. We just couldn't get hold of the ball during that 15 minutes.”
Riley also voiced his displeasure with the refereeing decisions throughout the game, which included two Courage goals being called back for offsides in the first half.
“The game should have been over at halftime in all fairness,” Riley said. “Both goals were onsides. The refereeing tonight was disappointing. The linesman to miss two goals, it was poor. I thought she was poor too. I mean the referee couldn’t run a two year old’s birthday party, you know? That’s how bad she was tonight. Inconsistent. Yellow cards for average fouls. No yellow cards for professional fouls. All over the map.”
After the Spirit game, Riley made a pair of changes to his lineup. With Abby Erceg headed to Tokyo with New Zealand, Diane Caldwell partnered with Kaleigh Kurtz at the back and Cari Roccaro replaced Hailie Mace. With Roccaro in instead of Mace, Kristen Hamilton shifted up from the No. 10 role to partner Jess McDonald up front and Roccaro slotted into that No. 10 spot.
In addition to her would-be assist on an early no-goal, Roccaro was excellent throughout the first half.
“Good energy from Cari tonight,” Riley said. “Obviously we were playing probably three sixes in there or you could say I guess three eights, but she was good I thought tonight. Got in good areas. We had a little chat with her at halftime. We felt that she was chasing the ball around the field a little bit too much and maybe if we get her free on the perimeter of their sixes, she'd be in a better spot in the half spaces. First half, I thought she was really good. Second half, she tired. It's been a while since she played. I was happy with Cari tonight and good energy, good commitment.
The two teams wasted absolutely no time in getting the action going. Just three minutes in, McDonald nodded home an inch-perfect cross from Roccaro only for a raised flag to bring it back.
Just minutes later, Houston grabbed the game's actual opening goal. Angharad James got her pocket picked deep in the Courage’s half and Shea Groom burst through the Courage’s backline to go one-on-one with Casey Murphy and slot the ball into the bottom corner.
Houston’s lead didn’t last long though, as Hamilton brought the Courage level in the 15th minute. Assisted by not one, but two deflections, Merritt Mathias’ cross found its way to Hamilton just outside the six and the forward was able to tuck it away and make things 1-1.
“I don't know, really, what happened,” Hamilton said. “I just remember kind of being around in the box and obviously the ball kind of just spun off. I think it just spun off a defender's foot, and I just anticipated and got there and was able to just put it away.”
After the rapid opening 15, things cooled off slightly. The Courage had another goal pulled back by a flag and were all together dominant, holding 67% of the possession in the opening 45.
Despite the first-half dominance by the Courage, it was Houston that struck first after the break. Denise O’Sullivan was called for a foul right on the edge of the Courage’s box and Houston’s Gabby Seiler blasted home the resulting free kick after a rehearsed set-piece routine.
The Courage put together some good attacks late, including McDonald drilling the crossbar in stoppage time, but Seiler’s goal proved to be decisive. Across the 90, the Courage held 64% of the possession and outshot Houston 12-6.
“It's encouraging coming off of last week's extremely disappointing performance,” Hamilton said. “We didn't play poorly tonight and I think that's what makes the loss hurt a little bit more. It's tough. This is a tough pill to swallow, because I don't think we deserve to lose the game. It's just unforced errors, giving up just soft goals.”
In addition to the solid team performance in the loss, the Courage saw a fair few solid individual performances from players like Roccaro and Kurtz. Kurtz, who has stepped up this season as a solid partner to Erceg and a leader in her absence, was excellent once again and has put together a solid string of performances.
The Courage will have a chance to bounce back on July 23 with a trip to Kansas City, who currently sit bottom of the league standings.