CARY, N.C. — The first day of summer isn’t officially here until June 21, but for the North Carolina Courage, what next month will bring showed itself Sunday.
The weather is one thing. It’s about to get especially warm in the Tar Heel State, and temperatures crept up to 91 degrees Sunday. The Courage’s match against Utah Royals FC needed a pair of hydration breaks for the players to power through. The other thing that happens in June for the Courage is further depletion of their roster, thanks to the 2019 World Cup. Four United States women’s national team players and Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe are already gone, and New Zealand’s Abby Erceg and Brazil’s Debinha will soon follow them.
But on Sunday, Debinha and Erceg were still there. Erceg provided staunch defending and Debinha created the equalizer in a 1-1 draw against the Royals in front of an announced crowd of 4,281 fans at WakeMed Soccer Park on a sweltering Sunday afternoon.
“The second half was great. We got to start the game like that and play the whole first half like that. The first 25 minutes, we didn’t get out of the gates at all,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “We didn’t finish our chances again and it’s same old, same old… We got to put our chances away.
“In the second half, the effort was brilliant. (Utah) had two shots, one on target, and that one went in, unfortunately. We were dominant in the game and I’m happy with the effort.”
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On the end of Debinha’s game-tying assist was Elizabeth Eddy, whose fourth career NWSL goal had been a long time coming.
Eddy, 27, subbed into the match in the 69th minute for starter Cari Roccaro. That marked Eddy’s first regular-season NWSL appearance since June 4, 2018, but she wasn’t done reaching milestones.
At that point, the Courage were trailing 1-0 and staring down their first set of back-to-back losses since 2017. Then, in the 78th minute, Debinha and Eddy made some magic.
From about midfield, Courage fullback Jaelene Hinkle played a long ball toward the edge of the box, where it was settled by Debinha. Eddy sprinted toward the goal and past a pair of defenders to Debinha’s left, so the Brazilian midfielder flicked the ball her way. Eddy found the bouncing ball and used a powerful swing of her right leg to put the shot past Utah keeper Nicole Barnhart and into the side of the net.
“Somehow the ball squared to Deb, we made eye contact, she looked up, dinked it over the top and I just attacked it and hit it laces solid, upper-90ish,” Eddy said. “We started a little slow, and then we got going together and really stuck with it and got into our tackles. It was a team performance to get a tie.”
That strike was Eddy’s first goal since Aug. 1, 2015. The North Carolina Courage didn’t even exist yet. Back then, they were still the Western New York Flash. For Eddy, the goal was a special moment. She’s played in just eight games, battling injuries and obstacles on the depth chart, since the Flash moved to North Carolina and became the Courage.
“It was amazing. It was like a dream come true. It was a great opportunity and I’m really thankful for it,” Eddy said. “For me, a lot of it comes from just my faith in God and trusting the process. If it feels like it’s not happening and it’s not fair, God’s in control and what he has for you, no man can take away. It’s just staying consistent and staying patient.”
The Courage couldn’t find another goal after Eddy’s late score and settled for a draw at home.
Six games into the season, the defending NWSL champs have now had three games with their four U.S. national team players – Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Sam Mewis – and three games without them. In the three games with them, the Courage posted two wins and a draw and outscored opponents 10-2. Without them, the Courage have had two draws and a loss and are being outscored 4-2.
And scoring and defending aren’t going to get any easier when Erceg and Debinha depart. Debinha helped the Courage score Sunday, while Erceg tallied two tackles and two interceptions.
Riley may have to tinker with his lineup and formations to get results while his international talents are away.
“It’s going to be a scratch and fight and grind these next six to eight weeks,” Riley said. “We’re going to have to adapt a bit at this point. We’ve talked about it a lot as a group, about switching formations, because we do have a lot of wide players here, a lot of outside-midfield types.”
But the Courage aren’t the only NWSL team missing proficient players due to the World Cup.
Utah is without Americans Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara, and Canadians Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson.
Considering that and playing on the road, Utah head coach Laura Harvey was happy to get a point against the Courage, despite leading for most of the match.
“We did really well in the first half,” Harvey said. “I’m really proud of my group, the way they dug in after a disappointing result last week, to come here — which is the hardest place in the league — to show the fight, grit and determination to push (the Courage) to the limit… I think we’ll look back on this and think it’s a really positive point.”
The Royals came out attacking from the get-go, making it clear that – while they’re stout defensively – they weren’t going to play out of a bunker against the Courage. In the 2nd minute, Amy Rodriguez tried to strike some angst into the Courage backline, but put her first shot just over the crossbar.
Rodriguez was more accurate with her second shot, even though it may not have appeared that way at first from the perspective of Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland. After an interception and two passes, the ball was at the feet of Utah forward Verónica Boquete, raced alongside Erceg and fellow Courage defender Kaleigh Kurtz. Stengel played the ball a few yards in front of her and to her left, allowing a sliding Rodriguez to connect with it. The slow rolling shot made its way toward the near post and slipped inside of it before Rowland could make a play on it.
“Every time you play them, I think you have to make a choice: You either sit in and defend them, or you go and play against them. And we always try to play against them,” Harvey said of the Courage. “You will always have times in the game where you feel a bit exposed and you’ve got to dig in defensively, but we always go after them and I think we got the goal off of it. I think that’s why – when we get it right – we’re a threat.”
This draw for the Courage marks the first three-game winless streak in the club’s history. They’ll look to snap that slide over their next two road games, against Reign FC and the Orlando Pride. The Courage won’t be back home until June 15.
“It is what it is,” Riley said. “We’re going to take some kicks the next few weeks. It’s going to be a battle. I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.”