CARY, N.C. – On the day she turned 28 years old, Debinha saved the day for the North Carolina Courage and kept her club’s championship aspirations alive.
In a National Women’s Soccer League semifinal match Sunday that required extra time to settle, the Brazilian midfielder lined up for a free kick from about 22 yards out in the 100th minute. The Courage were tied 1-1 with their opponent – Reign FC – and struggled most of the afternoon to beat the opposing keeper, Casey Murphy. Debinha lined up to the left of the ball, took two steps and unleashed a brilliant strike with her right foot that few goalkeepers would’ve gotten a hand on. The ball floated under the crossbar and over Murphy’s fingertips before connecting with the rear left corner of the net for the game-winner.
The Courage topped Reign FC 4-1 on a cloudy afternoon at WakeMed Soccer Park in front of an announced crowd of 7,422 fans.
It’s the fourth consecutive season a club coached by Paul Riley will play for the NWSL championship.
“I thought we dominated start to finish, to be honest with you,” Riley said. “We were really good in the second half; overtime I thought we played well too. The midfield was tremendous and created a ton of chances. We didn’t put the game away — should’ve put the game away a lot earlier — but we thought they would sit deep and they did sit deep.
“I was really happy with the performance. In a playoff performance, it’s usually a bit scrappy, but I thought today we played well.”
Creating the other two goals for the Courage in extra time were Kristen Hamilton and Crystal Dunn. Hamilton’s shot ricocheted off Reign defender Lauren Barnes, though, and was deemed an own-goal.
“I think when it went to overtime, I knew I was going to do a great job. Paul talked to us and we came back stronger,” Debinha said. “About the goal: It was the right moment… I was happy I could score. What a present. I’m so happy for this. It’s a special day.”
Before Debinha unleashed her heroics, sending the game into extra time were two unlikely goal scorers in Heather O’Reilly and Ifeoma Onumonu.
After the Courage attack was stymied by the Reign defense all afternoon, they caught a break late in regulation. Until that point, Murphy had been stout in defending her team’s goal, not letting one of the Courage’s 23 shots past her.
It looked like the Reign had stopped a Courage attack once again in the 88th minute, when Barnes slid in front of the near post to stop a low cross from Lynn Williams. But Williams’ attempt collided with Barnes’ hand and she was called for a handball, which led to a penalty kick. Stepping up for the attempt was O’Reilly, the soon-to-be-retired veteran who started at right back in place of an injured Merritt Mathias.
O’Reilly hadn’t taken a penalty kick all year for the Courage, but fired a low, hard shot that nestled up against the right corner of the net. Murphy dove left.
“We had been knocking on the door all day, but we stayed resilient,” O’Reilly said. “I thought that (penalty) would’ve been enough to seal it… It would’ve been fun if my penalty was the winner, but what can you do? We had more football in us, I guess.”
Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper typically were tasked with taking penalty kicks for the Courage this season, but Riley said the team had practiced penalty kicks in training the past eight weeks and O’Reilly rarely missed.
“It was a big moment, obviously,” Riley said. “Who better than Heather O’Reilly to step up and take a penalty? She held her nerve.
”It was a great penalty kick. I thought that would get us over the line.”
The game seemed to be in-hand for the Courage at that point. While Reign FC played solid defense, Vlatko Andonovski’s side hadn’t mustered much offense, putting just three of six shots on target.
But in the third minute of stoppage time, Onumonu – who entered the game as a substitute in the 80th minute – received a feed from Celia while she was in the Courage’s box battling defender Abby Erceg. After spinning around and beating Erceg, Onumonu fired a shot from the right side that sliced in front of a diving Stephanie Labbe for the equalizer. It was the third goal of the season for Onumonu, who was signed by the Reign as a national team replacement player in May.
STUNNER 😱@ify_on22 levels the match at the death!
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 20, 2019
“When you give up a late goal like that, it can affect the psyche of the team, but it was a good challenge,” Riley said. “I told them at the end of the game, ‘This is a mighty challenge.’ It was kind of a hole that we put ourselves in, but I think we only get better by being in those type of holes, and I thought we showed a lot of character in overtime. In that first 15 minutes of overtime, we were brilliant. Debinha took over the game.”
Before finding the back of the net in extra time, Debinha had several chances to score but either couldn’t get her shot on frame or couldn’t get it past Murphy. Her first chance came in the eighth minute, but Murphy easily got two hands on her attempt that came from the edge of the box. Debinha had another decent look in the 70th minute, but found her cross intercepted by Barnes.
In all, Debinha fired off five shots and landed three of them on frame. On the season, the MVP candidate now has nine goals and seven assists.
“It was sick,” Dunn said of Debinha’s goal. “I told Debs today, ‘It’s your birthday, you have to get a goal.'”
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 20, 2019
The Courage win can also be credited to their defense, which kept the Reign’s attack bottled up and frustrated most of the match. And, aside from a dangerous corner kick in the 14th minute, superstar U.S. women’s national team forward Megan Rapinoe had little impact on the contest. That corner kick attempt was punched out by Labbe, and when Rapinoe was one-on-one with the Courage keeper in the fifth minute, she was knocked off the ball with a hard, clean tackle from O’Reilly.
In all, Rapinoe had four shots and two corner kicks, none of which resulted in scores for the Reign. Rapinoe was not available for comment postgame because she had a flight to catch, a team spokesperson said.
“Hats off to North Carolina. They brought their best and we fought until the end. I’m proud of my team,” Murphy said. “We had an incredible season, despite all the adversity.
”They broke us down and today they executed, especially late in the game. They’re a very tough opponent, especially up top. Lots of pace and lots of speed.”
Murphy was standing on her head for much of the match, putting forth a valiant effort that featured 11 saves on the 35 shots she faced.
The Courage now move on to the NWSL final — which they will host next Sunday — for the chance to win back-to-back championships.
“I think we’re used to this type of environment, this type of adrenaline,” Riley said. “I told them, ‘You’ve got good news and bad news. Good news is you’re in the championship, the bad news is you’ve practice at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning.’ They want to get back on the field again.”