The North Carolina Courage are 15-6-0 and in first place with 45 points heading into Week 21 when they visit Sky Blue FC on Sunday (6 p.m. ET). They’ve already booked a spot in the playoffs and will host a semifinal match on Sunday, October 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET (Lifetime).
After the first week of the season, they’ve only been out of first place once, after weather postponed their game vs. FC Kansas City in Week 14 and they fell briefly into second place behind the Red Stars. They regained first place in Week 15 and went on to become the first team to clinch a spot in the NWSL Playoffs on August 30.
While the Courage try to clinch the NWSL Shield and wait to find out their playoff opponent, let’s take a look back at the games that led North Carolina to their first-place spot.
April 15: First game, first goal, first shutout, first win
Courage 1 – Spirit 0
It didn’t take long for the North Carolina Courage to get on the board in their first ever game. Midfielder McCall Zerboni scored in the 18th minute in the 1-0 win. It was also the first look at North Carolina’s stifling shutdown defense — the Courage did not allow a shot on goal in the match.
Though Spirit goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé put on a show to keep them from adding to their lead, the Courage came away with a win because of their strong defensive performance — a hallmark of their season.
April 22: First win in North Carolina
Courage 1 – Thorns 0
The Courage won their first ever home game in Week 2 when they beat the Thorns 1-0, allowing just two shots on goal in the win. NWSL newcomer Debinha scored the game-winner in the 81st minute off an assist from Jess McDonald.
The Courage took hold of first place with the win and would stay in first for the next 12 weeks before a brief slip to second in July.
June 3: Hatch scores her first goal
Courage 2 – FC Kansas City 0
After going 4-0-0 to start the season, the Courage hit a few bumps in the road in May, going 2-3-0. They suffered their first loss of the season on the road in Orlando before falling twice to the Red Stars over the course of the month.
June brought their national TV debut vs. FC Kansas City in the NWSL Game of the Week on Lifetime and a chance to get back on the winning track.
Zerboni scored off an always dangerous Courage corner kick. Rookie Ashley Hatch scored the first goal of her NWSL career in the first start of her career. McDonald missed the game with a strained left hamstring.
Both McDonald and reigning NWSL MVP Lynn Williams missed time with injury over the next few weeks and it was Hatch, along with Kristen Hamilton, who provided the offense for the Courage in their absence.
June 17: Hamilton and Hatch to the rescue
Courage 3 – Breakers 1
The very next game was the first without both McDonald and Williams. No problem for the Courage.
Hamilton scored a brace in the first 13 minutes of the game and Hatch scored her second goal of the season. Midfield stalwarts Sam Mewis and Zerboni each assisted on one of Hamilton’s goals.
August 13: Mewis scores twice at Memorial Stadium
Courage 2 Reign 1
After going 1-2-0 in July (shutout losses to Sky Blue and Portland), the Courage roared back in August, winning all five matches. Their biggest win came on the road in Seattle when Mewis scored twice to snap the Reign’s 15-game unbeaten streak at Memorial Stadium. Mewis won Player of the Week for her efforts, the first Courage player ever to win the award.
August 30: Courage come from behind to clinch a playoff spot
Courage 3 – Spirit 2
One thing the Courage had not done until the end of August — come from behind to win a game.
North Carolina conceded the first goal of the game in the eighth minute before coming back to tie the match at the end of the first half thanks to a Mewis goal. Then it was the Jess McDonald show as the forward scored twice in a five-minute span.
The Courage became the first team to clinch a spot in the NWSL Playoffs with the win.
September 9: Hamilton’s goal clinches the Courage a home playoff game
Courage 1 – Dash 0
After losing their third game of the season to the Red Stars, 2-1 on September 3, the Courage had to wait another week to clinch a home playoff game.
They were without Zerboni for the game as she was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, but grinded out another 1-0 win thanks to a Hamilton goal in the 26th minute. The play started with a long throw-in by McDonald and flicked on to Hamilton by captain Abby Erceg.
The win was North Carolina’s 11th shutout of the season, tying the league record. It was also their seventh 1-0 win of the year.
The Courage visit Sky Blue FC on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET, and will host their semifinal match on Sunday, October 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET (Lifetime).