Courage wins soccer rematch as a season to remember gets better and better

If you haven’t been able to keep up with the North Carolina Courage this season, that’s OK: neither has the entirety of the National Women’s Soccer League.

On Wednesday night, the Courage improved to 9-0-2 in NWSL play with a lopsided 4-1 win over the Portland Thorns (4-4-3), the defending NWSL champions.

Midway through the 2018 season, the Courage are leading the NWSL with 29 points, well ahead of second place Seattle (17 points).

“Every day, the final whistle blows and we’re all like, ‘Wow, that was better,’” forward Crystal Dunn said.

Wednesday night was a commanding victory. Leading 1-0 at half on the strength of a Lynn Williams penalty, the Courage scored in a second half flurry, putting in three goals between the 58th and 64th minute to secure a healthy 4-0 lead and continue their undefeated season.

The onslaught left the 15,018 fans in attendance at Portland’s Providence Park, as well as Thorns coach Mark Parson, befuddled.

“A lot of things happened in those six minutes,” Parsons said. “I can’t remember how one of the goals happened, never mind the three that went in.”

North Carolina’s Debinha scored on a header, Williams — who missed the previous two games with a hamstring injury — notched her second score of the night and Samantha Mewis headed in another following a corner kick to finalize the Courage’s scoring.

Since the Courage moved to North Carolina from Western New York in 2017 — and even before, when they won the 2016 title — they have been an impressive team.

Wednesday’s match pitted the NWSL’s top teams of the past two seasons, but this year, the Courage have been dominant, leading the league in goals scored with 23.

“I think we’re just growing,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “When we won the championship two years ago, I think it was almost by default. We weren’t really where we should’ve been at that point and we were a young team. I feel like the team has matured a lot.”

Up top, the Courage are led by former North Carolina Tar Heels Jessica McDonald and Dunn. Each is tied for third in the NWSL in goals (4) and tied for first in assists (3).

McDonald said she enjoys playing near UNC: “I get to play in front of my alma mater. Who wouldn’t wanna do that? It’s absolutely incredible. The Tar Heel women’s soccer team comes out to some of our games and it’s cool to see some of their faces and see their support.”

Dunn, who was the NWSL’s youngest MVP in 2015 and played for Chelsea FC the past two years, has been an especially welcomed addition in her first year with the Courage.

“I think Crystal Dunn has played a huge role on this squad,” McDonald said. “And obviously, the camaraderie is getting better and better by the year. We’ve been playing together three years now, the core of the team, so I think that’s a huge part of it.”

The Courage are arguably the most talented team in the NWSL. Five Courage players were recently called up to join the U.S. women’s national team’s 24-player roster for two friendlies in June. No other team boasted more than three.

“They’ve been a good team for the past couple of years,” Parsons said. “Fast. Everything is forward with their passing and they have 11 players ready to press and get the ball back. It’s a hardworking, direct team and it’s tough to deal with that.”

North Carolina’s 2017 campaign ended in a narrow, disappointing 1-0 loss to Portland in the finals, but they have been in form all year. As of now, they appear to be the team to beat in the country.

“Ultimately, we want to be on top at the end of the season, but right now it’s about getting better every game,” Dunn said. “This, I think, was the most complete game that we’ve had throughout the whole season.”

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