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NC Courage take top spot in NWSL standings after win over Reign FC

Lynn Williams and Debinha netted goals as the Courage won their third straight game, topping Reign FC at home.

Kristen Hamilton and Lynn Williams celebrate a goal during the NC Courage's July 13 game vs. Reign FC at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — While the North Carolina Courage’s U.S. national team World Cup superstars have been away, they’ve been able to consistently rely on Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton to generate offense.

So, with Jessica McDonald, Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis watching from the stands Saturday night, it was once again Williams and Hamilton that broke the scoring open for the defending NWSL champs.

Hamilton, a week after netting four goals, dished an assist to Williams in the 22nd minute that proved to be the game-winning goal. Brazilian midfielder Debinha added another score in the second half as the Courage won their third straight game, 2-0, over Reign FC in front of announced crowd of 6,216 fans at Wake Med Soccer Park.

It was the highest-attended game for the Courage this season, as the club gained a post-World Cup bump in attendance.

“It was a good performance. We started the game well, got on top of them early. (Reign FC) are always difficult to play against,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “They press well and almost always have four in the front to try and force us in dangerous areas. But once we settled in and got a good grip on the ball, that led to two great goals.”

The result is the Courage’s fifth straight unbeaten, and the three points from the win vaults them into first place in the league’s standings. The Courage also have the NWSL’s best goal differential with a plus-14 mark. If the Portland Thorns win Sunday, they and the Courage will be tied atop the table.

“I thought we played amazing tonight,” Williams said. “We got a grip of the game, we broke down (the Reign’s) press really well, we were finding space behind but also underneath their backline.”

Lynn Williams and Debinha scored as the NC Courage beat Reign FC 2-0 on July 13, 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

Leading up to Williams’ goal – her fifth of the season – was a sequence that began all the way on the other side of the pitch. Canadian national team goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe – making her first start for the Courage since May 4 – played a goal kick short to Kaleigh Kurtz, who carried the ball forward before playing it through to Denise O’Sullivan. She then passed to Hamilton, who then threaded a ball through three defenders to find Williams, who sliced a right-footed shot past a charging Casey Murphy.

Williams and Hamilton are now tied for second in the league in scoring, trailing only Chicago’s Sam Kerr in goals-plus-assists. Kerr has accounted for 10 points while Williams and Hamilton have nine each.

“The first goal was just typical us,” Williams said. “It was bang, bang, bang, three passes and in the back of the net.”

By the start of the second half, the Reign had burned all three of their substitutions. Megan Kelly came on for Shea Groom in the 41st minute and Addison Steiner relieved Beverly Yanez, who appeared to have suffered an apparent head injury during stoppage time of the first half. In the 46th minute, Kristen McNabb entered the game for Celia Jimenez Delgado. The Reign entered Saturday’s match with 10 players listed on the league’s injury report. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski said after the match that all three subs were “forced” not tactical.

“It’s one of those matches where the opponent was better than us and it showed on the scoreboard as well,” Andonovski said. “When you play opponents like the Courage, every weakness gets exposed, every mistake gets exposed. I’m just glad that, if this had to happen, that it happened now, and we’ve got 12 games to fix it.”

The Reign got off five shots in the first half, but couldn’t muster up a real threat to Labbe and the Courage goal. Yanez had one good look at the Courage net in the 21st minute, but her attempt sailed just over the bar and past Labbe’s outstretched mitt. The return of Courage captain and New Zealand national team veteran Abby Erceg helped keep Reign attackers at bay too.

Meanwhile, the Courage came out firing and created a few solid chances. Aside from Williams’ 22nd minute score, Hamilton forced Murphy to make a save in the 12th minute and Debinha clanked a hard attempt off the bottom of the far post just before halftime.

Debinha would find the back of the net in the second half though, as she tapped in a cross from Merritt Mathias while flying through the air in the 55th minute. It was the fourth assist on the year for Mathias and the third goal for Debinha.

Since returning from her World Cup run with Brazil, Debinha has had a hand in at least one Courage score in every match she’s played in, tallying two goals and an assist.

“Debinha is just different. When you look through all the teams in the league and you look at all the special players that have come from abroad, like the Marta’s of the world, Debinha is probably the No. 1 foreign player right now, besides Sam Kerr who scores tons of goals,” Riley said. “Debinha is the most creative player in the league right now. She knows how to find space, that’s the most important part for me. She understands the game so much better now than two years ago. Tactically, she’s easier to coach. She speaks great English now, which also helps, and she works both sides of the ball.

“She was fabulous tonight. She knows how to caress balls in.”

The Reign couldn’t break through in the second half. Labbe was forced to make just one save and she kept a clean sheet while facing eight shots. The Courage fired off 23 shots and put 10 of their attempts on-frame. Paul Riley’s side also controlled 53 percent of possession and was 78 percent accurate on 473 passes.

Dahlkemper, McDonald, Mewis and Crystal Dunn – who was on the west coast Saturday and did not attend the match – will return to Courage training on Tuesday and will be available for selection next Sunday, when the Courage travel to Chicago to face the Red Stars for a nationally televised game on ESPN2.

“They know that they’ve got to force their way into the lineup,” Riley said of the returning U.S. national team players. “They understand being a professional and it’s not going to be easy to get into this lineup.

“I wouldn’t guarantee, to be honest with you, that they’ll all be in the lineup next weekend. I think we need to take our time and make sure that physically and mentally that they’re ready to play.”

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