After drawing the first matchup and losing the second, the North Carolina Courage beat the Orlando Pride 2-0 in the teams’ third showdown of 2021 on Sunday, July 4.
With the win, the Courage leapfrogged both the Pride and Portland Thorns to move into the top spot in the NWSL. After eight games, the Courage have 16 points, one more than both Orlando and Portland.
“Being top of the table might be a target on our back, but we honestly always feel like we kind of have a target on our back,” said Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy. “Nothing really changes there. We're still going to play with intensity and confidence and train harder than any other team in the league. So nothing changes for us to being top of the table.”
Despite Orlando forcing a save out of Murphy in the opening 30 seconds, it was the Courage who struck first. In the third minute, Havana Solaun forced a poor pass in Orlando’s half. Debinha picked off the ball and her first touch took her past the last Orlando defender, leaving just Ashlyn Harris between her and her second goal of the season. Harris guessed the wrong way and Debinha tucked the ball in at the near post.
With Sam Mewis already with the USWNT ahead of the Olympics, Solaun moved up to the No. 10 role after playing the majority of the season at the base of the Courage’s midfield. Solaun eventually got a goal of her own in the 66th minute, toe-poking the ball by Harris after Jess McDonald taped a cross back to her.
“Everyone's yelling, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot,’ and I felt like it was just like slow motion,” Solaun said. “I kind of just took my touch. I was like, ‘Oh, there's a spot there.’ It's like one of those moments where if you don't get the shot off, everyone's like, ‘Why didn't you shoot?’ But if it comes off, they are like, ‘Well, good composure.”
In addition to her goal, Solaun was excellent throughout the game, especially in the press. With Debinha also set to join her national team ahead of the Olympics, Solaun proving she can be a threat, both in front of goal and on the press, in the No. 10 role will help the Courage continue their current winning streak.
“I think we've got her in a really good spot,” said Courage head coach Paul Riley. “She's a very, very good player. Super intelligent, too, and great on the ball. It's nice for her to get some goals because sometimes her work in this season so far has gone unnoticed, but not for me. I think she's been one of the stars of the season for me so far. She's got a starting place in that lineup right now, it’s up to her to keep it. The way she's playing, she doesn't mess around. She gets on with it… She's a sophisticated footballer.”
Not to be outdone by her opposite number, Murphy came up with a few big saves of her own, including a one-on-one with Taylor Kornieck.
The keeper battle continued in the second half, with Murphy and Harris combining for 16 saves by the end of the night. Especially in the second half, Murphy really came alive. After three saves in the first half, Murphy made an additional six in the second 45.
“The moment you switch off in games like this is when they capitalize,” Murphy said. “For me, it was just staying on my front foot, ready, communicating and just helping the team out when I could.’
While all three matchups between the two have been nothing short of exciting, the Courage’s ability to pick up the win over Orlando in the third matchup characterizes their improvement over the recent weeks.
“I don't think they do much different from what they were doing when they beat us at our place,” Riley said. “I think we're a little bit better than we were in a lot of different categories. I think the box is a lot better. I think the backline is a little stingier than it was.”
The Courage will look to make it five wins on the bounce on Saturday, July 10, as they take on Washington for the first time this regular season. When the two faced off in the Challenge Cup, the Courage won 3-2.