Cary, N.C. — Both the North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride were already in the playoffs with little to play for in their final regular season games, but that didn’t stop them from playing a thrilling match on Saturday night in Cary, North Carolina. In front of a record crowd of 7,020 at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, the Pride topped the Courage 3-2 thanks to an Alanna Kennedy free kick in stoppage time.
With the score tied in the first minute of stoppage time, Orlando was awarded a free kick just outside the penalty box. Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper was called for a foul on Pride forward Jasmyne Spencer and issued a yellow card.
Kennedy, Marta and Alex Morgan stood over the ball before Morgan made a run into the box. With perhaps everyone expecting Marta to strike it on frame or pass to Morgan — Kennedy stepped up and struck it with her right foot. She bent it over the wall and past a diving Katelyn Rowland for the game-winner.
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 1, 2017
“I had no idea that [Kennedy] could hit such great free kicks. I haven’t seen her hit something like that from close range before, but she stepped up there confidently. She didn’t even know it went in the back of the net. All of us knew it went in the back of the net before she did,” Morgan said after the game.
“She religiously practices them after training, almost every day,” Pride coach Tom Sermanni said. “She doesn’t usually score that many with nobody in goal. So it was good tonight to have a wall there, and the goalkeeper, and score. World class free kick, to be honest.”
A loss or a tie to the Courage would’ve meant that Orlando would meet North Carolina again in the semifinals next week. The win moves them into third place, which means they’ll have to travel cross-country to face the Thorns — who have only lost once at home all season — in front of a likely sold-out crowd of over 21,000 Thorns fans.
“I think for both teams, this is probably the first game of the year when you’re playing under the normal pressures that you do week in and week out. We just said to our players tonight, we wanted to go out, really enjoy the game and play as best we can. Whatever way the result falls, it falls. That’s the way our players approached the game,” Sermanni said.
The Red Stars were in third place at the start of the day when they faced the Thorns in Portland. Chicago rested several starters and fell 3-1, which, following Orlando’s win, meant they dropped into fourth place and will face the Courage (a team they’ve beaten all three times this season.)
The Pride started their regular line-up and, of the Courage regular healthy starters, only Sam Mewis did not start the match.
“This is really important for us. We’re never going to show up to a game to tie, to lose, anything like that. We have a lot of momentum right now. Nine games unbeaten at this point. We just want to keep that momentum going forward. Honestly, we’re not gonna rest anyone. We rest when the season is over,” Pride goalkeeper and captain Ashlyn Harris said. “This is an important win for us because it sends a message. We’re not resting players. We’re not trying to rig who we play. Every day we show up as professionals, and we’re expected to play and win and that’s what we did.”
In the 51st minute, Orlando made it 2-0. Marta scored her 13th goal of the season, which puts in her in second place in the NWSL behind only Sam Kerr for most goals scored. She’s also tied for second with six assists in her first season in the league.
Marta’s goal came on an assist from Morgan, as the two continued their connection that has been so key to the Pride’s offensive success down the stretch. It’s Morgan’s fourth assist to go with her nine goals in 13 games this season.
Looking to lock down that 3️⃣ seed.
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 1, 2017
“It’s enjoyable to watch. You see it, you hear it in the crowd every time she touches the ball. It’s magic,” Harris said. “That’s what happens when you have the G.O.A.T. on the field. She’s expected to make big plays and she does it.”
Marta dazzled the crowd throughout the game — particularly on a spin move at midfield in the 40th minute. Even Courage coach Paul Riley was impressed.
“I thought Marta was special tonight. … Put on a show for everybody,” Riley said. “She was brilliant tonight. I enjoyed actually watching her tonight, I gotta be honest. I thought she was brilliant tonight.”
The Courage got back into the match shortly after Marta’s goal as Lynn Williams scored twice in a span of five minutes for her eighth and ninth goals of the season.
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 1, 2017
“The game could’ve gone either way. I was proud of the players coming back from a two-nil deficit tonight. Got ourselves back in the game and maybe could’ve pinched it, you know, right after that,” Riley said.
“It was a really fast-paced game. I thought both sides were playing some great soccer. It was a lot of fun for me to watch that throughout the first half,” Mewis said. “Both teams created a lot of chances. I’m not surprised that both of these teams are going to the playoffs.”
“Hopefully not too serious, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing her for the rest of this year,” Sermanni said after the game. “She’s either strained a ligament in her knee or perhaps done a little bit of cartilage damage, but we’re hoping it’s not too bad.”
Orlando finished the regular season on a nine-game unbeaten streak.
“It was very important for us to get the win here, finish strong in regular season. We had a lot of supporters come up from Orlando, so we obviously wanted a good showing for them and we wanted to continue to build momentum going into playoffs,” Morgan said.
Up next, it’s a cross-country trip to face the Thorns on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET in Portland. Orlando has faced Portland twice this season — a 2-0 loss in the first game of the season with no Morgan or Marta — and then last week’s 0-0 draw in Orlando.
“It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a tough game just because of the time that it’s at,” Morgan said of the 12:30 p.m. PT kickoff time. “I don’t love games around Noon. … I just don’t think it’s the greatest time. But at the same time, Portland is on a great run as well.”
“Hostile,” Sermanni said with a laugh when asked what he expected the crowd to be like next week.
In the second semifinal, the Courage will have to face the Red Stars, a team that has beaten them all three times they’ve faced each other this season.
“We’re all happy to be there. I don’t think it matters who you play. I don’t think there’s much difference between all four teams on the day. We’ve got home-field advantage,” Riley said.
“We haven’t beaten Chicago, so we’re the underdog. We lost to them all three times, so I don’t mind that. I don’t mind being the underdog for that one.”
NWSL Managing Director of Operations Amanda Duffy presented the Courage with the NWSL Shield prior to the match. North Carolina locked up the best record in the league with a win over Houston on Wednesday night.