The NC Courage took on OL Reign in some NWSL After Dark action to kick off their regular season and while neither team was able to find the back of the net, the 0-0 draw was far from boring.
Casey Murphy and Karen Bardsley both had great performances in net for their respective teams. Murphy had a couple of quality saves while Bardsley denied the Courage again and again, especially in the second half.
“[Murphy] knows the field well too and there's a lot of average bounces, should we say, a lot of different bounces…” said NC Courage head coach Paul Riley. “I thought she was really good tonight… Very dominant in the air, obviously. It's confidence to have her there. Her size, dependability… Sometimes she takes a little bit too much time on the ball for me in the 18, but all the other pieces are there to be a top, top, world-class goalkeeper and I think she'll be the US number one in a couple of years. I really do. I think she's got it all ahead of her and all we can do is help develop and nurture through these moments.”
Both Abby Erceg and Havana Solaun returned to the starting XI for the Courage after missing multiple games. Erceg missed the entirety of the Challenge Cup, while Solaun missed the final three games after starting the opener against Orlando.
Erceg nearly began her return in emphatic fashion, blasting a powerful header off the bar in just the second minute. While Erceg made a few early mistakes, her influence on the field was noticeable.
“It is the intangibles that [Erceg] brings,” Riley said. “When you see [Denise O’Sullivan] play like that, then you know that Kiwi is back. You know because Sully played a lot better with Kiwi behind her. It's just the reality of it… The reality is that, when they've got somebody like that they can rely on and that can organize six people at once, instead of one person at one time. I think it helps the group enormously… Kiwi makes everybody better, including the goalkeeper too.”
Despite Erceg’s return to the lineup, the Courage had a few defensive miscues early in the game. Erceg picked up a yellow card, albeit soft, in the 20th minute after failing to handle what should have been an easy ball.
The defensive miscues weren’t the Courage’s only issues in the first half either. The team was sloppy in possession and gave away a lot of silly fouls after giving the ball away. Some of the Courage’s sloppiness in possession can be attributed to the Reign’s press, which gave players like Debinha almost no time on the ball.
North Carolina improved in the second half, especially defensively, and as the half progressed, the Courage continued to improve their passing and began to look more and more dangerous in the final third.
“Poor first half, we couldn't find any space,” Riley said. “The field is so tight. We just couldn't find any space. And in the second half, we made a little adjustment halftime and pulled the nines a little bit wider, brought the 10s a little bit tighter and opened the sixes up, the width of the sixes. We just changed our shape a little bit to try and get on the ball a bit more. I think it certainly helped [Denise O’Sullivan and Hailie Mace] to get on the ball in the second half, which obviously allows us to get into the nines and 10s.”
The Courage weren’t the only team starting to look more dangerous as the game opened up late in the second half. The Reign had some brilliant opportunities to take the lead but Jess Fishlock scuffed her shot on two different occasions, Megan Rapinoe was denied by the post and Murphy came up big for the Courage.
“It was just the defensive breakdown,” Murphy said. “They found a ball through us and so I tried to close the space and I’m not sure who took the touch but they took a touch wide, which made me just have to react to get up quickly and then make the save. Just holding that high position and holding your ground in that situation is definitely important.”
A lot of the Courage’s chances came from set pieces. In the last few games, the job of delivering those set pieces into dangerous areas has fallen to Carson Pickett.
“I feel honored to be taking free kicks for this team,” Pickett said. “I mean, there's a million good players that could be taking these. Debinha is obviously amazing. It's just a really big role because I think we're so dangerous in the attack that we earn a lot of corners and set pieces. It's been amazing so far, hopefully getting better and better as we go and just learning the ropes.”
While the performance was far from perfect and the Courage missed chances to take all three points, walking away from Tacoma with a point is not a bad result.
“I was pleased, away from home, probably on the toughest field in the league to get the point, I'm happy with that,” Riley said. “Come back with the point and then we move forward from here with a couple of home games ahead of us, but I was really pleased second half the way we played, knocked it around a lot better. First half, we were all over the map and we didn't give them any big, big chances, I don't think first half. But it wasn't a great performance.”
The Courage will be back in action on Saturday, May 22 as they host Orlando Pride in their regular season home opener.