It started with a knee, it ended in fireworks.
Professional team sports made a return to the United States on Saturday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down in mid-March. It was the National Women’s Soccer League that kicked action off with the first match of a month-long tournament – the Challenge Cup – played entirely at Zions Banks Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
The two-time defending NWSL champion North Carolina Courage took the field first against the Portland Thorns in qualification round action Saturday morning. In an empty stadium without spectators in an effort to limit exposure to COVID-19, both teams took a knee during the national anthem and wore Black Lives Matter shirts and arm bands in protest of 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,” the Courage and Thorns said in a joint statement. “It is our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms this nation was founded upon are extended to everyone.”
On the field for the Courage was Lauren Milliet, a 2015 graduate of Durango High School.
“It was quite emotional,” Milliet said of the pregame protest. “I know a lot of my teammates felt the same way. It was a big moment that was really important for us.”
The Courage and Thorns played a scoreless first half with some cobwebs evident in the first match of the year.
In the 65th minute, Milliet stepped onto the field as a substitute to replace Courage midfielder Crystal Dunn, a U.S. Women’s National Team star. The second-year pro from Colorado College immediately made her presence felt, drawing the praise of CBS announcers Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner.
“I had no idea I was going to play today. Obviously, I was prepared if I did or didn’t,” Milliet said. “I was feeling very calm and confident. I’ve been training really well and was ready to prove myself to (head coach Paul Riley) and my teammates.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, to finally step into the light.”
After the scoreless opening 74 minutes, the Courage would score the first goal of the tournament off a header by Brazil’s Debinha. Her goal came with an assist from Hailie Mace.
The Portland Thorns would answer back five minutes later with a goal from Simone Naomi Charley, who collected a rebound after Lindsey Horan’s shot rebounded off the crossbar and caused a scramble in front of goal.
Milliet nearly assisted Debinha on a go-ahead goal moments later, but Debinha was offsides.
The Courage weren’t to be denied a game-winning goal, though. Four minutes into stoppage time, Samantha Mewis made a beautiful run down the right side of the field and played a perfect cross into the box to her roommate, Lynn Williams, who headed home the game-winning goal to give the Courage a full three points in the first game of the tournament.
“If a crowd was there, they would have been going crazy,” Milliet said. “Our teammates were going bonkers. That goal brought relief, but we were so stoked at the same time. Sam’s cross was absolutely amazing. Anytime you put a ball near the box close to Lynn, she’s going to get some appendage on it. It was incredible to watch. We were putting a lot of pressure on Portland the whole game, and we would have been gutted to not get the result.”
Milliet was all over the field playing box to box and serving up strong passes. At one point, CBS’ Wagner compared the play of the Durangoan to that of Belgian national team and Manchester City player Kevin De Bruyne. Wagner admitted Milliet wasn’t on the level of the English Premier League star but said she saw the same type of mental strength and creativity in Milliet.
“The first couple of touches I had ended up being really great,” Milliet said. “All through my youth, when I got on the pitch I wanted to connect a pass or do something to immediately set myself in the right direction for the rest of the game. I came on with energy and ready to help the team anyway I could. I felt calm, collected and unshakable. I was prepared for this debut.
“It means a lot to get some recognition. I look back on how far I’ve come, my growth even just from last year to this year. Knowing that other people see that as well, it means the blood, sweat and tears have been worth it for me. I’m definitely over the moon to strut my stuff out there and have people recognize it.”
Milliet and the Courage will be in action again at 8 p.m. Wednesday against the Washington Spirit. North Carolina will face the Chicago Red Stars in a rematch of last year’s NWSL championship match at 10:30 a.m. July 5. The team’s final qualification round game of the tournament will come at 8 p.m. July 13 against Sky Blue FC.
Originally, the Courage were scheduled to play the Orlando Pride during the qualification round, but the Pride were forced to withdraw this week after multiple players and staff tested positive for COVID-19. The eight teams still in the tournament are sequestered in Utah and will undergo frequent testing and face strict health protocols, including wearing masks on the bench during games.
The remainder of the tournament games will be available via the CBS All Access streaming service. The tournament championship game at 10:30 a.m. July 26 will be broadcast on CBS.
The Challenge Cup will serve as the only 2020 season for the NWSL, which had its regular season canceled by the pandemic.
“I’m grateful we’ve even able to have this opportunity,” Milliet said. “For awhile there, I was nervous there would be no season. The NWSL has worked extremely hard to ensure our safety during this pandemic and our ability to play.
“I had a lot of emotions mixed into this game, but it was an overwhelming sense of joy to be back on the pitch doing what I love.”