Two weeks after their disastrous showing against the Chicago Red Stars, the NC Courage took down OL Reign 2-1 on Saturday, June 19 and looked like a completely different team while doing it.
Prior to the game, Courage head coach Paul Riley said the team had worked on some tactical changes during the international break and those changes were nothing less than effective against the Reign. For the entire first half, the Courage’s forwards were able to find space between the midfield and defense and in the channels between the center and outside backs.
Debinha and Kristen Hamilton, playing as the 10s, created the space by playing narrow and forcing the Reign’s sixes to focus on them and not the nines.
“Jess and Lynn were the focus, and the two 10s,” Riley said. “Trying to make sure that we penetrate a little bit more, break lines a little bit quicker. I feel like we've been very stodgy in our build and slow in our build. We wanted to speed the tempo up a little bit, even switching the point of attack. All the little things we talked about, I thought we did really well... It's nice when you see it put into a game and we got behind them a lot.”
In addition to the nines finding a lot of space, Carson Pickett and Merritt Mathias were able to get forward on the outside, eventually leading to Jessica McDonald’s opening goal. Havana Solaun played the ball out wide to Mathias who drove forward and put an inch-perfect cross into the box. The cross narrowly avoided the rushing Sarah Bouhaddi and perfectly found McDonald at the far post.
“I know if Merritt Mathias is out wide, between her and Carson Pickett, I'm not coming in to help them whatsoever. I'm getting into the box immediately,” McDonald said. “All the repetitions that we've done, making runs into the box, pulling off the defender's shoulders, obviously it paid off today. I just read Merritt’s body language and right place, right time. She played an immaculate banger right over the goalkeeper and just gave me a nice little tap in from my noggin.”
In addition to the offensive success the Courage were finding, the defense was very solid, especially while playing through the press. Abby Erceg and Kaleigh Kurtz got the nod as the starting duo and, combined with Casey Murphy, were able to build from the back and get the ball to the midfield without going long.
“Our build was much better,” Riley said. “We built through the fullbacks. We built through the sixes. We built through the 10s. We built by swinging it around the back. I think everything we talked about and all the different varieties that we want from them, I think they showed us today.”
After continuing to dominate for the majority of the second half, the Courage got what would prove to be a very important insurance goal in the 77th minute. Snacks hosts Sam Mewis and Williams linked up with a great give-and-go just inside the box, allowing Mewis to get the space in the box and tap it in at the near post.
The Reign brought it back to a one-goal game nearly 10 minutes later. Jess Fishlock caught Murphy in no-man's land and scored with an audacious chip.
While neither players’ name will appear on the box score, Denise O’Sullivan and Solaun were incredibly solid throughout the 90. Operating as the Courage's dual sixes, Solaun was awesome as a creator and distributor, while O’Sullivan was her usual self, breaking up the play and screening the backline. O’Sullivan had a singular slip up late in the game leading to the Fishlock goal, but other than that, both sixes were nearly untouchable.
“I'm just still getting used to playing with Sully,” Solaun said. “Every time you get to work with somebody, especially in a pairing position, you just need reps. It was really important to kind of stay connected with our backline, but also with each other. Sully is a very easy player to play off of. It's a newer position for me, and I think Sully is a really good person to learn from in that aspect. So it's been fun learning the position while playing next to her.”
The Courage will have a short rest before their next game as they travel up to Kentucky for a showdown with former Courage player Lauren Milliet and Racing Louisville on Wednesday, June 23.