Piscataway, New Jersey — The North Carolina Courage are now unbeaten in nine games (7-0-2) after defeating Sky Blue FC 2-1 on a rainy Saturday night at Yurcak Field.
The Courage are the only NWSL team undefeated on the year and are now tied with Seattle Reign FC in 2014 for the best nine-game start. Four years ago, the Reign started the season 13-0-3, which is the NWSL record.
While Week 8 earned the Courage another three points, the team was hardly satisfied with the result. The end of the match was a foggy-frenzy for the Courage defensively from first giving up a penalty kick in the 71st minute to then allowing a late free kick goal. Sky Blue FC midfielder Carli Lloyd put the home team on the board in the game’s final moments with a free kick blast from 20 yards out. If the Courage would have kept the clean sheet, the team would have earned their sixth shutout of the season.
“I guess we’re exactly where we want to be,” Courage forward Jess McDonald said after the game. “We didn’t set any goals, but we’re in a comfortable spot. The crazy part is it may seem like our season is going perfectly, but it really is not, because at the end of the day we gave up a PK, then we gave up a free kick at the last minute of the game, so that just shows that we have a lot of things to work on.”
From the outside looking in, the Courage look like they are cruising. They sit at the top of the table with 23 points (nine points ahead of the second-place team, Seattle Reign FC), they have 15 goals scored and have depth all over the field. But, the fact that the team felt like they hardly came out with three points on Saturday night shows just how high the standard is in the North Carolina jersey.
“I think we’re actually disappointed with second half performance,” head coach Paul Riley said. “Our first half was really good, we created five to six great chances and we should have wrapped the game up. We nearly let ourselves go in the second half, [we got] loose and we got complacent.”
Someone who was particularly hard on herself was midfielder McCall Zerboni.
Zerboni, who has already earned the nod for NWSL Player of the Week two times this season, is the pulse of the Courage midfield. Even McDonald calls her “a gun,” for her grit, for her tenacity, and her ability to win anything and everything in the midfield. In the win, Zerboni switched the point of attack in the 26th minute of play, which eventually set up the Courage’s second goal of the night.
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“It’s an interesting balance because a big part of my game is breaking up plays and getting in there and getting scrappy, but there should also be a shift when we need to control the game; in my body language, in the way I possess my ball and in my leadership,” Zerboni said.
Zerboni said Riley was “a little disappointed” when the two discussed the game during the post-match cool down. Although Zerboni was the playmaker behind the Courage’s second goal, she also conceded a PK in the 71st minute which could have put Sky Blue back in the game if the penalty was made. Lloyd took the penalty kick, but Rowland stopped her shot and then made a second save on Raquel Rodriguez‘s attempt on the rebound.
“He thought we let the game get away from us at a couple moments and you know, that is my fault. I need to provide a little bit more leadership and get a grip of the ball, calm the team down and make sure we don’t miss out on those details.”
But, even in a “disappointing” performance, Zerboni and the Courage are consistently getting the job done and it is not going unnoticed. U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis was in the stands at Yurcak Field, which is her second-straight Courage game she’s been to this season.
“I think there’s a few players knocking on the door,” Riley said when asked about Ellis being at their games. “I mean when you look around McCall is in tremendous form and she had another great game tonight.”
Zerboni has earned just one senior team call-up in her career and it was in October of 2017. She made her debut as a second half substitute against South Korea on Oct. 22. Zerboni has three goals this season and leads the league in tackles won (29). Ellis poking around the stands is likely her way of getting a final look in before the USWNT reports to training camp at the beginning of June ahead of their set of friendlies against China (June 7 and 12).
“It’s really good to see her coming out and watching the games,” Zerboni said. “She’s a huge part of our success with where we’re going to go with the World Cup and the Olympics, so to know that she’s coming out here and investing in it and keeping an eye on it to make sure that she brings in the best players to go compete internationally.”
The Courage will continue their road stretch in Week 9 when they travel to Orlando City Stadium to face the Orlando Pride in a midweek match-up on Wednesday, May 23. The Pride stripped the Courage’s unbeaten streak at the start of the 2017, so the Courage will have a short time to prepare for another road test.