CARY, N.C. — The announced attendance for the North Carolina Courage’s clash Thursday evening against Manchester City in the Women’s International Championship Cup was 5,436 fans. But only a few hundred still lingered at WakeMed Soccer Park when Jessica McDonald clinched the win for her side at the death of the match.
Cari Roccaro intercepted an errant Man City ball on the other side of the pitch in the second minute of stoppage time. Jaelene Hinkle cleaned up the mess, then played a long ball over the top to a streaking McDonald down the left side of the pitch. The veteran striker collected the pass, out-muscled a defender and then slotted the ball between the legs of the Blues’ falling goalkeeper. If the ball made a sound when it hit the back of the net, it couldn’t be heard over the screams of McDonald and those loyal fans who stuck around as she sprinted to the sideline to be embraced by her teammates.
After a lightning delay that lasted more than an hour, the Courage topped the Cityzens 2-1 and advanced to the WICC final on Sunday, where they will defend their crown against Olympique Lyonnais, a rematch of 2018’s final in Miami.
“Wow. That was a crazy last 20 minutes. I thought we played well,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “City are a good side. It’s a great win in the end and a much-needed win for us, an emotional win… I’m hoping this gives us a huge lift.”
When thunderstorms rolled into Cary around the 76th minute mark of the match, things weren’t going well for the Courage. Riley’s side was controlling possession and launching a flurry of shots at the cage, but couldn’t seem to sneak any past Ellie Roebuck, who was stellar between the pipes for the Blues for most of the match.
On top of that, the Courage trailed 1-0. Georgia Stanway, a 20-year-old English forward, netted a brilliant strike against the run of play in the 41st minute, putting Man City ahead by a goal at halftime. Stanway was able to avoid an Abby Erceg tackle and slotted the ball past a diving Katelyn Rowland.
Through 66 minutes, the Courage had blasted 21 shots, but none of them connected with the back of the net.
Olympique Lyonnais vs. Atletico Madrid, and NC Courage vs. Manchester City were the semifinal matchups of the 2019 Women's International Champions Cup on Aug. 15, 2019 in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)
Despite Riley vowing last week to rotate his squad in this tournament, he trotted out mostly a first choice lineup, with the exception of leaving Steph Labbe and Abby Dahlkemper on the bench. McDonald didn’t start, but entered the match at the start of the second half. Also subbing in for the Courage, in the 65th minute, was former U.S. national team star Heather O’Reilly. It marked just the sixth appearance of the season for the 34-year-old.
Down a goal in the locker room during the lengthy weather delay, the Courage stayed calm. They listened to music, they rested and they thought only a little bit about the game plan.
“I don’t think we try to get too serious, because then you have time to overthink it,” Hinkle said. “We just turned on some music, relaxed. People were stretching, staying loose. The atmosphere in the locker room stays pretty chill so we’re not over-hyping ourselves or getting too locked-in.”
Coming out of the intermission, Riley made three subs, slotting in Julia Spetsmark, Meredith Speck and McKenzie Meehan, who would become an unlikely hero.
“I think he just wanted us to get numbers in the box and attack everything,” Meehan said.
Meehan, who the Courage acquired in a June trade with Sky Blue FC, had played just a total of 15 NWSL minutes this season before Thursday. But in the 84th minute, she was in the right place at the right time. A corner kick from O’Reilly bounced around the box and then fell to Meehan, who firmly struck a shot past Roebuck for the game-tying score.
It was the first professional goal for Meehan, who’s in her third NWSL season.
“Abby (Erceg) called for it and went up for it, but I saw that it was a little out of reach,” Meehan said. “So, I was just behind her, settled it and got a shot off as quickly as I could.”
The Courage celebrated, but didn’t rest after that goal. If the score remained tied, penalty kicks would be in order. Instead, Riley flipped his formation to a 2-2-3-3 – or something like it – and had Hinkle and O’Reilly bombing in crosses while McDonald and Debinha made runs into the box.
After a few misfires, Hinkle played McDonald in for the game-winner.
“It was a crazy series of events,” Hinkle said. “Cari made a really cool, sweet slide tackle. I was just like, we’re going to go for it. One of my teammates said, ‘We need to go long.’ So, really, I just did a Hail Mary pass and Jessica knew what to do; to get down and slot it home.”
Today's goal of the game brought to you by @LaLigaEN. In the dying moments of the match @TheNCCourage's @J_Mac1422 delivers the match winning goal over @ManCityWomen to book their place in Sunday's WICC Final! #WICC19 pic.twitter.com/fygKM3kSWm
— Women's ICC (@iccwomen) August 16, 2019
In all, the Courage out-shot Man City 39-12, placing 12 shots on-frame to just four by the Blues. Man City controlled 56 percent of possession and connected on 510 passes, but their methodical approach and stout defense was only effective for so long.
The Courage will face another unique style of play on Sunday when they meet Lyon in the tournament final. Like the Courage, Lyon attacked, attacked and attacked in their win Thursday over Atletico Madrid, getting off 24 shots in a 1-0 win.
A season ago, it was O’Reilly who was the hero in the final for the Courage. And she’s looking forward to the challenge again.
“With all due respect to Madrid, we all would’ve been really disappointed to not be able to face Lyon here on this field and get another go at them,” O’Reilly said. “Now we have the chance to do it again, and to really kind of solidify that we are one of the best club teams in the world.”