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Courage beat Thorns in NWSL opener after players kneel during anthem

North Carolina's Lynn Williams and Portland's Lindsey Horan battle for the ball during the NWSL Challenge Cup on Saturday.
North Carolina’s Lynn Williams (9) and Portland’s Lindsey Horan (10) battle for the ball during an NWSL Challenge Cup match Saturday in Utah.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Lynn Williams scored in stoppage time, and the North Carolina Courage defeated the Portland Thorns 2-1 in the opening game of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup tournament Saturday.

The NWSL is the first professional team sports league to return amid the coronavirus outbreak. The teams had opened preseason training camps when the league shut down March 12.

Players from both teams collectively took a knee during the national anthem and wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts in pregame warmups to protest racial inequity.

After a scoreless first half, Brazilian Debinha broke through for the Courage by tapping in a ball served up by former UCLA standout Hailie Mace. But the Thorns tied it minutes later when Simone Charley scored off a scramble in front of the North Carolina goal after Lindsey Horan’s shot rebounded off the crossbar.

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Williams scored the go-ahead goal on a header off a cross from Samantha Mewis.

The eight teams taking part in the Challenge Cup are sequestered in Utah for the duration of the month-long tournament and must follow a strict protocol that includes frequent coronavirus testing.

The NWSL came up with a plan to become the first U.S. soccer league to return, and that landed the women’s league a spot on national TV Saturday.

But the tournament was rocked earlier this week when the Orlando Pride were forced to withdraw because of multiple positive tests among players and staff.

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The Courage are the NWSL’s two-time defending champions and considered the favorites at the Challenge Cup. Last season, they scored a league-record 54 goals.

Courage forward Jessica McDonald, who was on the U.S. national team that won the World Cup last summer in France, did not play because of a thigh injury.

The Thorns were without goalkeeper Adrianna Franch because of a right knee injury. Bella Bixby made her NWSL and Thorns debut in goal.

Courage rookie Ally Watt had to be stretchered off after a non-contact injury in the second half. She was replaced by Mace, who assisted on the team’s first goal moments later.

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There was also a moment of silence before the game as the league recognized the national outcry following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“We took a knee today to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America. 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 Thorns and Courage said in a joint statement released before the game.

Players for the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage take a knee during the national anthem.
Players for the Portland Thorns, left, and the North Carolina Courage take a knee during the national anthem before the start of their NWSL Challenge Cup match Saturday.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

The league confirmed the day before that it would play the national anthem before the Challenge Cup games and that it would support the players in whatever they chose to do.

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During the late match between the Red Stars and the Washington Spirit a few players remained standing. There was a touching moment when Chicago’s Julie Ertz consoled teammate Casey Short, who was overcome by emotion.

“Today, hopefully, it was a powerful statement,” the Courage’s Mewis said after her team’s victory. “It was an emotional time, and I hope that both teams’ message comes through clearly.”

Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn said: “The [players’ association] has been about collaborating with teams on what we can do to maintain and sustain the conversation around racial injustice in this country.

“We made a strong statement, and we wanted to kind of maintain that momentum that has been happening and to show official commitment to the cause,” she added.

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Megan Rapinoe, who plays for OL Reign but opted out of the Challenge Cup, was criticized when she knelt at an NWSL game and a pair of U.S. national team games in 2016. She said she wanted to express solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the anthem to bring attention to racial inequality.

In response, U.S. Soccer adopted a rule that required players to stand. But that rule was repealed earlier this month amid nationwide protests over the death of Floyd and racial inequity.

Rapinoe voiced her support for the NWSL players Saturday on social media, saying: “You love to see these women using their voice, demanding better for America, and for black people and people of color.”

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