2017 NWSL Championship. 2nd minute. Taylor Smith beat Tobin Heath to a ball in the center of the park and then angled herself to get position. Heath did not stop. Instead she ran up the back of Smith and shoved her down with two hands. Foul called but no card. Smith slowly got to her feet and came off favoring her right shoulder. She gave it a good run, briefly returning to the pitch where she tried to play without full use of her right arm. By the 11 minute mark she was down again, this time for good. Makenzy Doniak came in to replace her.
With that, the life was sucked right out of the NWSL’s flagship match of the year.
“That was probably the ugliest soccer game I have ever played in,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said.
Sam Mewis almost saved the match. In the 14th minute she intercepted Adrianna Franch’s clearance and beat the NWSL’s Best XI keeper with a well-weighted chip. But the ball came down on top of the crossbar and the match remained 0-0.
Minutes after Mewis’s near miss and before the Courage had further meaningful possession, eventual MVP Lindsey Horan was beaten to a ball by McCall Zerboni. Horan did not stop though. She bumped Zerboni at full force and stuck one leg around Zerboni’s in an impossible attempt to win the ball. Zerboni stayed down for a spell before popping up and having a brief chat with referee Danielle Chesky. Horan received a stern talking to, but nothing further. To most in the stadium, it was too late anyway.
“The referee got a grip second half and settled the game down,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “Probably should have done it a little earlier.”
By the time Horan obliterated Zerboni, the Courage were down a right back and a sub and the energy inside Orlando City Stadium had changed. The coaches were mad—both of them according to The Equalizer’s Allison Lee who watched the match from a vantage point close to where Mark Parsons was patrolling the Thorns’ sideline. By the end there were profane chants coming from at least one side in the exhcanges between supporters,
The first postgame question about how the match was officiated mentioned that “their players were clattering into yours all over the place.”
“I’m glad you said that not me,” the coach responded before admitting that the tactic made it difficult to get a rhythm.
“Yeah, they were physical,” Riley continued. “Overstretched from physical. I think they had more tackles than passes in the first half. It almost looked like it was their game plan.”
Heath was eventually carded near the end of the half. She avoided a foul on a questionable play that resulted in Kristen Hamilton going down awkwardly and having to come out of the match. Hamilton had been the one to drop back to right back after Smith had to leave and her subsequent ext left Doniak as the last line of defense on the right.
Hayley Raso picked up a card as the clocked ticked over to stoppage time. Doniak probably should have for a challenge on Heath in stoppage time. It was all getting out of control. Both coaches had to be nudged to leave the pitch for halftime.
Credit to both coaches for finishing the game. 99% sure I would've gotten tossed.
— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) October 14, 2017
“I thought Tobin received the two worst challenges of the game,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons said, voicing what was clearly the minority opinion on the day. “It was horrific. It was always going to be a physical game. Carolina have built an identity around being physical, around being fast.”
Parsons said there was no directive to be physical on the day. He said it was not discussed before the game nor in the week leading up to the game.
“We’ve held these players back from touching each other in training for two weeks,” he said. “It was almost non-contact soccer. It’s worse than we saw tonight. These players know one thing to do. Going into Chicago regular season game they’re smashing, hitting each other, pressing, recovering in the Wednesday 11-v.-11 as much as in any other game. We learned that we can’t do that. People were getting knocks from honest, good hard work.
“If there is a reason why we had a little extra spice tonight it’s because they haven’t felt contact for two weeks in training.”
As is often the case in these matches, there was not going to be any agreement between the two sides. Most Courage players declined specific comment about how the game was called. Zerboni though put in her two cents while sitting next to Riley in the press conference.
“The rules of the game are such that you want the referee to get control of the game and hold on to the game, that’s what they’re there for,” she said. “Otherwise we would just take them out and be balls to the wall. I thought she did her job. I thought some things could have been changed and gotten control of the game earlier with maybe a couple of cards shown. I thought there were a couple of tackles that maybe could have been a red card honestly. It was clear what their game plan was.”