The Portland Thorns FC and North Carolina Courage officially kicked off the NWSL Challenge Cup at the Zion Bank Stadium in Utah on Saturday.
It was clear, at the start of the league’s first nationally broadcasted game, that the players were focused on more than just the match at hand. During the playing of the national anthem on saxophone, the nation saw complete solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as each player took a knee, followed by a moment of silence.
Substitutes on the bench continued to wear BLM t-shirts as well as their face masks.
Aly Wagner and Jenn Hildreth were the broadcast team (love to see a league lifting up women’s voices off the pitch as well), and Luca Spala was the ref.
Some differences from regular play included extra hydration breaks, and an allowance of five substitutions throughout the game.
This match was sure to be an exciting one, as Portland and North Carolina have been the top teams in the NWSL, combining to win the last three championships.
The Courage started off strong, showcasing their explosive style as the trio of Williams, Dunn, and Debinha dominated play. Lynn Williams, a bubble player for the U.S. women’s national team, got the first scoring chance of the game followed by a big save for Thorns rookie goalkeeper Bella Bixby.
North Carolina continued to keep the majority of the possession, with the few pushes from Portland led by Captain Christine Sinclair – all-time top international goal scorer. Despite many close goal attempts by the Courage, the match remained scoreless after the first 45.
Lisa Baird, who took over as league commissioner earlier this year, was interviewed at the half. Speaking on the collaborative effort the formation of the tournament was, and the amazing host city bid from the Royals, she stated the league’s return was a “significant statement for all sports.” Baird also commented on this being the first match to be on a national broadcast.
“Americans, […] we want them to fall in love with the sport, fall in love with our players, and realize that we have an exciting tournament ahead of us and 22 more games to go,” she said.
The goal for Portland going into the second half was to be braver with their style of play and to stop allowing so many opportunities for the Courage in transition, as outlined by coach Mark Parsons, and they delivered.
After multiple substitutions on both sides, the game saw a lot more back and forth action. Despite the increase in energy, Bixby and Courage keeper Stephanie Labbé kept the scoreboard clear.
Carolina’s Ally Watt unfortunately had to be removed from the pitch after injuring herself pulling up mid-stride and was unable to remain for the entirety of her NWSL debut. With such a short preparation period before the tournament, and adjustment to Utah’s higher altitude, there hopefully won’t be other similar incidents.
After the hydration break Brazil’s star national player Debinha was finally able to tap one in and the Courage scored the first goal of the tournament at 74”.
Portland wasn’t going to give up easily, and responded just five minutes later with Simone Charley scoring on Lindsey Horan’s rebound.
The score remained tied at one through 90 minutes, with six minutes added in stoppage time. In a similar play to their first goal, the Courage were able to seal the victory at the 94” mark with a header from Lynn Williams.
“When we’re down we’re always gonna keep fighting back,” said Williams. “We haven’t played together in eight months and there’s altitude and a bit of nerves and stuff but that’s the one thing that this team prides itself on. No matter the situation we’re gonna keep fighting until the end.”
Jaelene Daniels of the Courage was named the brilliant player of the game, and Williams woman of the match.
The next nationally televised game will be the finals on July 27th. The remainder of the matches can be found on CBS All Access (a free month trial is available). Up next is the Houston Dash vs the Utah Royals Tuesday at 12:30pm EST, followed by the OL Reign vs Sky Blue FC later that night at 10pm EST.
Featured graphic courtesy of NWSL.