CARY, N.C. — The North Carolina Courage crossed 32 balls into the box and sent 26 shots flying toward Reign FC goalkeeper Casey Murphy. Just one ended up rolling past her Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park, and that was enough for the Courage to capture a victory.
Lynn Williams netted the lone goal in the 82nd minute on the rain-soaked pitch, and the Courage took a 1-0 win over the visiting Reign in front of a season-high announced crowd of 6,743 fans. It was the seventh goal of the season for Williams, placing her fifth among the NWSL’s goal-scoring leaders.
“This game sums up the NWSL. It’s a well-fought battle between both teams and sometimes it takes one goal to decide the end result. I’m proud of my team and we played really well,” said Crystal Dunn, who assisted on Williams’ game-winner. “I felt like we were in control of the game for a good chunk of it… It wasn’t easy. We dug deep and we found a goal at the end.”
The sequence leading up to the goal started with Sam Mewis dribbling in space before passing up-field to Jessica McDonald. As three defenders closed in on her, McDonald danced around two of them and then made a left-footed pass to Dunn, who was sprinting into the box behind the near post. With one touch, Dunn sliced the ball across the box to a trailing Williams, whose low and hard shot snuck past a diving Murphy.
It was the second assist of the season for Dunn, who has also netted five goals in 2019.
“Jess gets on the ball, someway somehow, and I saw a pocket of space where I thought she could find me and she had a great slip-ball through to me and I was able to pick Lynn out,” Dunn said. “I was happy I didn’t mess that one up.”
Added Williams: “I saw that (Dunn) was in behind them and everybody was dropping, so I just pulled back off and she slotted it back to me and I put my big foot on it.”
— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) August 25, 2019
Much of the Courage’s attacks proved to be inefficient up until that point. They controlled the game with 57% of possession, but sent ball after ball flying into the box — all either snuffed out by Murphy, cleared by a defender or off the mark.
Murphy made six total saves. Out of her 13 starts this season, the first-year NWSL goalkeeper has allowed more than one goal just three times. She’s also posted five clean sheets. In a season of turmoil for the Reign, where they’ve experienced dozens of injuries, Murphy has been a bright spot.
“She’s been big time,” Reign defender Allie Long said. “She’s a rookie this season and I think she’s done phenomenal. She’s stepped up huge. She had no time to prepare. (Michelle Betos) got an injury and she stepped up. So much credit to her for being mature enough and being able to step up into this role and have such a big impact.”
The Reign switched up their formation for this game, straying away from their typical 3-6-1 and opting for a 5-4-1 with a box in the middle. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski said he implemented it just two days before the match.
“Just to match the quality in certain areas and to create superiority in numbers in areas where I felt they are usually taking games over,” Andonovski said of why he made a change against the Courage.
The switch in tactics didn’t provide much offensive firepower. The Reign put just one of their nine shots on target, but it did frustrate the Courage’s attack.
“I thought we played some great football tonight. Vlatko is a great coach, set them up really well and was difficult for us in the low block,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “This is what teams do when they come here. We controlled probably 90 percent of the game, but you still have to get the ball in the net. We missed a lot of chances tonight.”
Kristen Hamilton came close to scoring twice in the early moments of the game, forcing a Murphy save in the seventh minute, and then poking a shot over the bar in the 12th minute. Mewis and Dunn put shots over the bar in the first half, too.
In the 35th minute, a diving acrobatic effort from Murphy stopped Debinha from finding the back of the net on a free kick. Seven minutes later, the Brazilian took another attempt at goal from distance, but again, Murphy was there to halt it.
McDonald entered the game as a substitute – for the fourth straight game – in the 60th minute. She looked to have a chance at scoring in the 66th minute, but the referee whistled her for a foul as she made her way into the Reign’s penalty box.
Riley and the Courage players were visibly upset with the officiating for much of the match.
“I thought the referee was very inconsistent tonight. He was giving fouls one way and not the other way for the same foul. I just want consistency. I don’t care if you let them play or you blow your whistle every second, but you’ve got to do one or the other,” Riley said. “Tonight, Sam Mewis comes off fuming at the end of the game about the referee. That says a lot to me, because players know. When you’re in the game, you know what the referee is like. And he’s a really good referee, but tonight he did not have a good game. It was disappointing, to be honest with you.”
The victory for the Courage puts the club within two points of the Portland Thorns for first place in the NWSL table. The Reign, meanwhile, are in fifth place, just one point behind the Utah Royals for the final playoff spot.
“I think it was pretty even, I think,” Long said of the game. “We lost focus for one moment and they’re a great team that’s going to punish you when you turn off for a second. Us, as a team, we need to be better. We need to be focused every minute of the game.
“We have to play pretty much every single game like a playoff match.”