CARY, N.C. — A midweek match-up between the North Carolina Courage and the Houston Dash looked like a recipe for a blowout.
Entering the game, the Courage had the league’s best offense, having scored 46 goals this season and having put the ball in the back of the net 12 times over their last two matches. Meanwhile, the Dash had lost three of their last four games with the second-worst defense in the NWSL, allowing 32 goals this season.
But the Dash defense stood strong for most of the match. The only thing that separated the mighty Courage and the visiting Dash was a successful Sam Mewis penalty kick in the 86th minute. Mewis’ first goal of the season came at a timely moment, giving the Courage a 1-0 win over the Dash in front of an announced crowd of 4,943 fans on a damp Tuesday night at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The victory also clinches a playoff spot for the top-of-the-table Courage (43 points, 13-4-4) for the third straight season. The Dash (25 points, 7-10-4) remain in seventh place and out of the postseason race.
“It wasn’t one of our great performances. I think we looked a little bit fatigued,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “We just looked a little tired, a little sluggish, especially in the midfield with the two No. 10s… It’s nice to get a clean sheet, but credit to (the Dash). To be honest with you, I thought they made it difficult for us and they compacted the field to where there was no space between the lines. They had a great game-plan.”
Prior to the match, Riley pulled Mewis aside and gave her the assignment as the penalty kick taker for the match. Abby Dahlkemper missed a penalty in the Courage’s previous match, a 6-1 win over the Pride on Saturday.
Mewis had been practicing penalty kicks often leading up to the World Cup, should the national team had needed her. The Stars and Stripes never called on Mewis to attempt from the spot, but her club required her to convert against Houston.
“She was quite happy to take it,” Riley said. “She hits a good one. If she hadn’t hit it as hard, it might’ve been saved.”
The penalty was called when Mewis’ sister Kristie – a Houston midfielder – fouled Crystal Dunn in the box. Players and coaches for the Dash vehemently disagreed with the call and Kristie Mewis was given a yellow card in the 88th minute for dissent.
Answering pool reporter questions, the officiating crew said it called the penalty because Kristie Mewis “impeded the progress of her opponent with contact.”
Taking the kick, Sam Mewis put a low, hard right-footed shot into the lower left corner of the net. Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell guess right, but the ball rolled underneath her diving effort.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 18, 2019
“I think my sister had a great game,” Sam Mewis said. “She’s a great player and I’m really proud of her and everything she’s accomplished this season. She’s my family, so I feel a little bit for her. Paul had confidence in me to step up there and take it.”
Houston Dash manager James Clarkston said that a penalty kick should’ve been called in his side’s favor in the 58th minute, when Sofia Huerta took a fall in the box after contact with Courage fullback Jaelene Hinkle.
“That’s not a penalty, for me,” Riley said of the 58th minute play. “The ball dropped, she backed into Jae and then jumped forward. That one certainly wasn’t a penalty. I’d be furious if they gave that.”
When asked by a pool reporter why a penalty wasn’t called in that situation, the officiating crew said the play “involved normal soccer contact.”
“It’s disgraceful. I’ll get a letter in the (coming) weeks saying ‘We got it wrong.’ But it’s happened consistently, six, seven, eight times this year. It’s not good enough,” Clarkston said. “For the standard of the league, the standard of the players, the quality of the players, the refereeing has to improve… You can’t tell me that was a penalty (in the 86th minute). Not in a million years.”
Several Dash players took to Twitter immediately after the match to voice their displeasure with the officiating.
“Sad when a ref ruins a game,” Dash forward Kealia Ohai said. “Proud of our team. Horrible call.”
“I’d yell at the ref, but my jaw hurts,” Dash defender Allysha Chapman said, referring to a high boot from Kristen Hamilton that hit her in the face. “Horrible officiating.”
Amber Brooks added: “Absolute (expletive). Referee threw the game…per usual. Check yourself @PROreferees.”
The Dash packed in their defense for the majority of the game and disrupted the Courage’s attack. While the Courage got off 18 shots, just five of them landed on-frame, and Campbell saved four of them. The Dash took seven shots, putting just one on-target. The Courage also lobbed in 29 crosses and controlled 61 percent of possession. The Dash tallied 19 tackles.
Dunn had a good look at the Dash goal for the Courage in the 41st minute, as she danced around on the right outside corner of the box to create space before unleashing a hard left-footed shot. The attempt was on-frame, but a diving Campbell got her fingers on the shot to push it wide.
Campbell is third in the NWSL in saves this season with 66 stops.
“That’s the frustration of it: We’ve made progress,” Clarkston said. “The commitment and the effort the players have put in is incredible. It’s not necessarily how we want to play, but we’ve got to find ways to beat the best team in the country… I think we gave ourselves a fantastic chance tonight and variables out of our control have cost us at least a point.”
Riley’s side is one the road for its next two matches, going to Utah on Sept. 21 and then Washington on Sept. 28. Valuable points will be on the line as the Courage look to capture the NWSL shield and secure the top playoff spot.
“We haven’t even thought about clinching anything,” Riley said. “I think we’re just trying to keep everyone healthy. We’re going to have to make some big changes for Saturday’s game. The priority is not winning the shield, the priority is keeping everyone healthy and keeping the performances high as we go into the remainder of the season.”