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Short-handed Courage learning to play without World Cup stars

Courage to host Women’s International Champions Cup

Courage coach Paul Riley discusses hosting Women’s International Champions Cup in August.
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Courage coach Paul Riley discusses hosting Women’s International Champions Cup in August.

In the 53rd minute, rain triggered a delay of an hour and a half at WakeMed Soccer Park. Most fans scattered, but a precious few waited. And waited.

Against Sky Blue FC on Saturday, they would be kept waiting. For the North Carolina Courage, a team that scored 10 goals in its first three matches of the season, the offensive downpour never came in a 0-0 draw, its second tie of the season (2-0-2).

The Courage undoubtedly missed the talents of four players, including leading scorer Crystal Dunn, who were tapped to play for the U.S. national team in preparation for this summer’s World Cup. Dunn, the NWSL Player of the Month for April, scored four of the Courage’s goals coming into tonight.

Also unavailable were defender Abby Dahlkemper, forward Jessica McDonald and midfielder Samantha Mewis.

“I think the biggest challenge is always going to be to put the ball in the back of the net,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “When you have Crystal Dunn, and you have Sam Mewis, and you have Jess McDonald, you’re going to create more chances.”

Of course, the 90 minute delay didn’t help either.

“It’s hard to stop and go with the body and the mind,” midfielder McCall Zerboni said. “But this group is strong, mentally and physically. I thought we came out [of the rain delay] really strong, pushing for a goal. I thought we could have ran away with the game at any point. We just missed that finishing edge in the final third.”

But the draw against Sky Blue leaves questions to be answered in the next phase of the Courage’s season, when they will continue to be without Dunn and company.

“We got a good kick in the rear end to say, ‘Listen, we’re gonna have to be at our very, very best if we want to pick up points in the next six to eight weeks,’” Riley said.

Though the Courage took 28 shots to Sky Blue FC’s seven, manufactured 15 corner kicks and possessed the ball for 58% of the match, the team found itself unable to capitalize.

Perhaps the match’s best chance came in the game’s final minute, when Sky Blue forward Imani Dorsey had a shot to win with the Courage keeper pulled out of goal. It was defender Merritt Mathis who prevented disaster, deflecting the shot and preserving the tie.

For the fans who stayed, the moment was a sigh of relief, a welcome reprieve on a night where the team’s missing talent was evident.

Time will tell if the Courage will learn to play without its stars, but Zerboni is optimistic.

“We have a philosophy as a group and we stick to it,” the veteran said. “We always play the way that the Courage play, with our strengths. We got this game under our belts, and we’re only going to be better from here on.”

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