Rick Bowmer, AP Photo

After kneeling to support racial equality, North Carolina tops Portland 2-1 in NWSL Challenge Cup opener

By Sean Walker, KSL.com | Updated - Jun. 27, 2020 at 10:17 p.m. | Posted - Jun. 27, 2020 at 11:26 a.m.


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HERRIMAN — United States women’s national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe was the first North American soccer player to take a knee in protest of racial inequality and police brutality when she joined former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick a few years ago.

Rapinoe was not on hand when the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC kicked off the NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium on Saturday morning; the OL Reign midfielder was one of several U.S. internationals who opted to skip the tournament.

But the message of the movement — that racial inequality exists in America today, that police brutality and systemic racism need to end, and that Black lives matter — did not need her voice.

Nearly every player from the Courage and Thorns kneeled in solidarity with the movement as a saxophone played the U.S. national anthem prior to Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. MT kickoff. Match officials, coaches and some staff members also joined the players on bended knee in observing a pre-match moment of silence prior to the first competitive game in North American professional team sports since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered significant portions of the U.S. economy.

“We took a knee today to protest racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America,” read a joint statement from the Courage and Thorns. “We love our country and we have taken this opportunity to hold it to a higher standard. It is our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms this nation was founded upon are extended to everyone.”

The movement was driven entirely by the players, according to NWSL players association co-executive director Brooke Elby. Teams in England, Germany and Spain have made similar motions as their respective leagues restarted from the pandemic amid a worldwide movement for racial equality.

"I think that we want to keep this momentum, and keep attention on the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the tournament," said North Carolina midfielder Samantha Mewis, whose team is also hosting an online auction to benefit the National Black Justice Coalition. "We're really proud of ourselves for putting that on, honoring both Black lives and pride.

"I think today was a powerful statement. It was an emotional time, and I hope that both teams' message came through clearly."

Portland coach Mark Parsons, who was also wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, and his staff joined the Thorns players in taking a knee on the bench. North Carolina coach Paul Riley did not kneel, but stood with his players on the Courage bench as the anthem played.

Players, coaches and match officials take a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter prior to the opening kickoff between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC in the first game of the NWSL Challenge Cup, Saturday, June 27, 2020 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman. (Photo: Sean Walker, KSL.com)

Players warmed up wearing the Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Match officials and staff members in the stadium also wore the same shirts. Players also wore special black and white armbands with the “Black lives matter” while playing.

“The game was bigger than us against Portland. It’s much bigger than sport,” Riley said after the match. “It’s about us getting back, and about sport in society. It’s a big moment for racial justice.

“I know our players really, truly believe — as we all do — in racial justice.”

The match began with a moment of silence in honor of the movement, and the victims of racial injustice and police brutality.

“With our collective voices, we emphatically say, ‘Black lives matter,’” read a statement over the public-address system to the mostly empty stadium.

Saturday’s match was the first of the NWSL Challenge Cup, the return-to-play tournament of the National Women’s Soccer League. It was also the first-ever professional women’s match to air on network television, kicking off at 10:30 a.m. MT on CBS.

Utah Royals FC will open the tournament Tuesday, June 30 at 10:30 a.m. MT against the Houston Dash. The game will be streamed live on CBS' subscription service, CBS All Access.

North Carolina 2, Portland 1

As for the match, Lynn Williams’ stoppage-time winner gave the Courage the full three points in the opening game of the tournament and the 2020 NWSL season.

“In the first half, I had an opportunity to score and I missed it,” Williams said. “So I’m happy I could rectify that.”

For more than an hour of game time, Portland’s center back pairing of Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges got the better of dynamic Courage forwards Kristen Hamilton and Lynn Williams. Bella Bixby, who started in goal for the Thorns’ injured goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, also held off an onslaught that is considered to be the most dynamic attacking force in the nine-team league.

But Debinha broke through in the 75th minute for the Courage, heading home Hailie Mace’s cross in the 75th minute for the 1-0 lead.

“Debinha was magic today,” Riley said. “She was the best player, for me.”

Simone Charley pulled one back just five minutes later for the Thorns, who celebrated underneath the video board at Zions Bank Stadium filled with a less-than-enthusiastic Google Meet chat of Portland fans.

But Williams found the back of the net off another header midway through stoppage time, blasting the ball off Bixby’s fingertips to secure all three points for the two-time defending league champion Courage.

Ally Watt spilled down on the turf in the second half with an injury and did not return. Riley said after the match it “looked like a knee” injury, but did not elaborate as the team performs more tests.

“Both of my calves were cramping, so that was tough,” said Mewis, who assisted on the winning goal. “It’s tough for everybody; it’s tough playing on turf. But we know the league is doing everything they can to make this a successful tournament, and we’re just excited to be back competing again.”

Washington 2, Chicago 1

Rose Lavelle and Ashley Hatch scored a goal in either half to help the Spirit hold off the Red Stars in the evening match on opening day.

Lavelle opened the scoring just eight minutes into the game, slamming home a putback shot from inside the six-yard box to give Washington an early 1-0 advantage. The U.S. international threaded a pass to Hatch, whose shot was saved — and batted down to the foot of Lavelle for the opening goal.

Hatch, who starred collegiately at nearby BYU, doubled the advantage barely 30 seconds into the second half, dispossessing the keeper and slotting home a 2-0 advantage.

Morgan Gautrat pushed a ball inside the far post just five minutes later to pull one back for Chicago, but the Red Stars could get no closer.

Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe made a pair of clutch second-half saves to preserve the win for the Spirit.

Much like in the previous game, play started with a moment of silence to honor the lives lost to racial injustice and police brutality around the country. Many players took a knee during the national anthem, while several remained standing, locking arms with their teammates or placing a hand on the shoulder of their closest friend.

Chicago center back Julie Ertz wrapped her arm around teammate Casey Short, consoling her visibly emotional teammate in a stirring moment.

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