A late goal pushes the North Carolina Courage past Sky Blue FC
North Carolina Courage forward Jess McDonald slips past New Jersey goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and scores the winning goal of the match. | Courtesy: @TheNCCourage

After breaking the league record with 12 clean sheets in the 2017 National Women's Soccer League season, the North Carolina Courage have secured two straight 1-0 wins to open the 2018 season. In the match on Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park, the Courage topped Sky Blue FC when forward Jess McDonald scored her first goal of the year. The Courage improve to 2-0-0 while Sky Blue falls to 0-1-0. 

A quiet first half

The first half of the match was mostly innocuous from a scoring standpoint. Sky Blue FC played excellent possession soccer, but they were unable to push the ball past the Courage defensive line into opportunistic scoring positions. Sky Bue midfielder Carli Lloyd made her first appearance with the team in regular season play, but she was quiet during the first 45 minutes. The Courage, on the other hand, seemed entirely incapable of holding possession or building solid attack during the first half. It seemed like the Courage always took one too many touches.

One notable characteristic of the first half was the physicality. Both teams refused to yield, which contributed to the lack of consistent offensive presence from either side. Sky Blue failed to create any significant offensive chances during the first 45, but the Courage did close out the half with a hard shot from Debinha, but SBFC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan easily collected the ball. 

Another late goal for the Courage

The second half opened slowly, but the Courage quickly put together a string of dangerous opportunities. The first came when forward Lynn Williams chested the ball down and took a shot, but it was always too high. In the 54th minute, the Courage had their best opportunity until the end of the match. North Carolina forward Kristen Hamilton collected a beautiful through-ball and attacked the goal with just the keeper to beat. Sheridan missed the ball, but Hamilton's shot skipped off the post. When the ball went out for a Courage throw in, Hamilton was subbed out and Jess McDonald came onto the field.

Tired feet brought the caution card out of the ref's pocket in the 66h minute for Sky Blue defender Christina Gibbons and then again in the 86th minute for New Jersey defender Rebekah Stott. During that time, both teams made their remaining substitutions. It was clear that Sky Blue was comfortable taking a 0-0 draw, but the Courage continued to press their back line. In the 90th minute, defender Jaelene Hinkle sent a perfectly weighted ball forward for Jess McDonald. McDonald used her speed and relatively fresh legs to blow by the Sky Blue defense. When she reached the top of the box Sheridan charged her, but McDonald took a little touch to the right and left the goalkeeper on the ground as she slid the ball into the goal. 

The Courage players celebrate after Jess McDonald scores in stoppage time to give them a 1-0 lead over Sky Blue FC. | Courtesy: @TheNCCourage
The Courage players celebrate after Jess McDonald scores in stoppage time to give them a 1-0 lead over Sky Blue FC. | Courtesy: @TheNCCourage

Upcoming schedule for the teams

The entire NWSL will be off next weekend for a FIFA break. The United States women's national team will be playing a pair of matches against Mexico on Thursday, April 5 and Sunday, April 8. Those games will call up two NWSL players to the Mexican women's national team and nearly 20 NWSL players for the USWNT. The break will also allow the three dozen international players currently participating in the league an opportunity to play for their respective countries.

When the league resumes play on April 14 the Courage will take their perfect record on the road to Boyds, Maryland where they will be hosted by the Washington Spirit (0-1-0). Sky Blue will play again on April 15 for their home opener against the Seattle Reign FC (1-0-0).