By: Morgan Turner
Sky Blue FC will kick off its Pride Night match against the North Carolina Courage this Monday, July 13 at 10 PM ET. The match will close out the preliminary round of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. Results of the preliminary round matches will determine seeding for the knockout quarterfinal stage which is set to begin Friday, July 17. After going 1-1-1 throughout the competition, Sky Blue turns their sights on the tournament’s undefeated leader in hopes to secure the second seed. This match is proudly presented by NJM Insurance Group.
“I want to be able to go out and to challenge any team that’s in our league and I feel confident in our ability to do so,” Head Coach Freya Coombe said in Sunday’s pre-match press conference.
For fans in the United States and Canada, the match can be streamed on CBS All Access with an on-demand recording posted to the network following the conclusion of play. International fans can stream the match live on Twitch.
Sky Blue is coming off a stellar performance against the Houston Dash which featured the club’s first two goals of the tournament. Throughout the offseason, Coombe had set her sights on increasing offensive potential by channeling through the midfield and putting increased pressure on rival defenses. After playing with a single striker up top for the first two games of the Challenge Cup, Sky Blue’s technical staff reworked the team’s formation to instead play with three attacking forwards.
This decision yielded immediate results as forward Paige Monaghan connected off a pass from Ifeoma Onumonu to net the club’s first goal of the season just 17 minutes into the first half. Monaghan has started in all three games for Sky Blue generating offense from both the right and left sides of the field.
In the 34th minute, midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi notched her first goal in a Sky Blue jersey. Kawasumi’s unassisted goal from 40 yards out following a mistake from Houston goalkeeper’s Jane Campbell earned her Saker ShopRite Woman of the Match honors. The midfielder has been a key component of Sky Blue’s offense playing every minute of the first three matches.
The victory provided the club with a valuable morale boost heading into the rest of the tournament. “The team has really risen to the challenges that we’ve put in front of them,” said Coombe. “I’m certainly pleased about the progress and the direction that we’re going in. I think there is more to come from us which is great and we don’t want to put a ceiling on it.”
Fourth-year goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan earned her second clean sheet of the season with one save. Sheridan and the Sky Blue defense, led by veteran defender Gina Lewandowski who has played every minute of the tournament thus far, have allowed just one goal through three games, tied for Challenge Cup best with NC Courage. Sky Blue’s steadfast defense will once again be integral to the team’s success as they face off against the club currently tied for the tournament lead in goals scored (5).
The North Carolina Courage entered the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup as the reigning NWSL Champions. The Courage joined the NWSL in 2017 after earning franchise rights from the Western New York Flash. Since then, the North Carolina team has gone on to earn back to back NWSL Championships and three consecutive regular-season titles. The Courage has been led by Head Coach Paul Riley since the club’s inaugural season.
North Carolina opened tournament play with a close 2-1 victory over Portland Thorns FC in stoppage time. They followed up this performance with a decisive 2-0 win against the Washington Spirit. With a late goal in their third preliminary match, the Courage notched a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars. With three wins and nine points under their belts, North Carolina has secured the top seed of the quarterfinal round.
Offensively, the Courage have been led by forward Lynn Williams who has led the club in goals scored, and 2020 is no exception. Throughout the tournament, she has registered a team-high three goals after scoring twice against Washington and recording the club’s go ahead goal against Portland.
Williams is joined by four fellow USWNT players – midfielders Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis, defender Abby Dahlkemper, and forward Jessica McDonald. Dunn and Mewis have appeared in all three games for North Carolina, starting two, while Dahlkemper earned a spot in the starting lineup for the two games she played in. McDonald was the first NWSL player to score 33+ career goals, passing the mark in 2017, and was named the 2018 Most Valuable Player of the Match at the 2018 NWSL Championship game.
North Carolina’s defense features two of the league’s top defenders, 2018 NWSL Defender of the Year Abby Erceg and Jalene Daniels (previously Hinkle). Erceg has represented her native New Zealand at the top level since 2006 including three FIFA Women’s World Cup appearances (2007, 2015, 2019). Erceg currently captains both the North Carolina Courage and the New Zealand National Team. Despite playing from the backfield, Erceg netted the club’s lone goal against Chicago.
After a solid 2019 campaign, Daniels was named the Courage’s Defender of the Year based on teammate votes. From 2010 to 2017, Daniels has represented the United States on the international stage including 8 caps with the USWNT from 2015-2017. Both Erceg and Daniels have played every minute of the Challenge Cup.
Stephanie Labbé and Katelyn Rowland have shared time in goal. Labbė joined the Courage in February of 2019. Last season, she recorded 34 saves and nine clean sheets. The Canadian goalkeeper won a bronze medal with her home country at the 2016 Olympic Games and earned the starting spot at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. Rowland has been with the club since 2017 securing 17 clean sheets on 43 starts over three years.
Sky Blue FC and the North Carolina Courage are currently the only teams boasting a positive goal differential. By kickoff, Sky Blue will know what each possible result in this match will mean for its quarterfinals seeding. A win in this match will likely solidify the second place seed.