Ahead of Sky Blue FC’s NWSL Challenge Cup first-round finale Monday night against the North Carolina Courage, manager Freya Coombe said she wanted her team to face the full strength of the league’s two-time reigning champion. She got her wish.

As they so often do, the Courage hit the gas pedal from the start and rolled to a 2-0 win. U.S. stars Samantha Mewis and Crystal Dunn scored the goals.

“Once we got into our rhythm, we were able to play, but they made it very hard for us to play and we gave them a little bit too much respect at times,” Coombe said. “And [we] then backed off and didn’t really imprint ourselves on the game. But the moments when we did, it was good.”

Coombe wasn’t wrong about her team looking good in stretches, but it took a while to reach that rhythm.

The Courage broke in behind Sky Blue’s defense in just the fourth minute, Lynn Williams forcing a good save by Kailen Sheridan. In the sixth minute, North Carolina earned three successive corner kicks, and on the last of them Mewis bashed the ball through a crowd and into the net.

North Carolina had six shots and seven corner kicks in the game’s first 16 minutes, while Sky Blue had none of either. Sky Blue didn’t register a shot at all until the 25th.

The Courage were rather rough for Sky Blue’s taste, and referee Danielle Chesky let a lot of it go. Sky Blue midfielder McCall Zerboni, a former Courage stalwart, had a few words with Chesky. So did general manager Alyse LaHue from a seat near her team’s reserve players. Chesky noticed LaHue’s remarks, and according to KeeperNotes.com, told LaHue to move to another area of the stands.

Sky Blue made a lively start to the second half, highlighted by right back Sabrina Flores launching a long-range shot in the 49th minute that landed just over the crossbar. A moment later, Chesky let a big non-call go in Sky Blue’s favor: A questionable Estelle Johnson tackle on Kristen Hamilton in the box went unpunished.

Dunn made the refereeing debate moot in the 56th with the Courage’s second goal, nutmegging Gina Lewandowski then finishing coolly from 10 yards.

“We didn’t want anything less from the full lineup of North Carolina,” Flores said. “That’s going to be the caliber that we want to play at.”

Rookie Evelyne Viens had Sky Blue’s best chance to score with a breakaway in second-half stoppage time, but Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland snuffed it out.

“Sometimes it’s not your day, sometimes you don’t create as much as you want to, but we showed some promising things,” said Zerboni, who admitted she felt “kind of like I was playing my friends with my new friends.”

North Carolina had already clinched first place in the first-round standings before the night started, and finished with a perfect 4-0-0 record (12 points). Sky Blue finished in seventh place, one of four teams with a 1-1-2 record but the worst of them on tiebreakers. The difference between them and 6th-place Chicago came down to the last tiebreaker on the books: fewest yellow cards.

Sky Blue will play the second-place Washington Spirit in the quarterfinals on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (CBS All Access).

Portland Thorns 0, OL Reign 0

The Portland Thorns will face top-seeded North Carolina in the quarterfinals after wrapping up the group stage with a scoreless draw with Cascadia rival OL Reign.

Portland went winless in the opening round to surprisingly finish last among the eight teams playing in the tournament.

Sofia Huerta, acquired by the Reign in the offseason, made her first start and had one of the team’s best chances late in the first half. Taylor Smith was open in the 61st minute but her shot went wide.

Portland controlled possession for most of the first half but Reign goalkeeper Michelle Betos saved attempts from both Christine Sinclair and rookie Morgan Weaver. Raquel Rodriguez got a long-range shot from the top of the box in the final minute of regulation but Betos scooped it up.

The Reign saw the return of Jessica Fishlock, who hadn’t played since last season because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury. She came in as a sub in the 72nd minute.

Lindsey Horan did not play for the Thorns due to a left hip injury after scoring in the team’s last game, a 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit.

Portland and North Carolina played in the tournament’s opening game, a 2-1 Courage win on June 27. The teams contested the 2017 and 2018 NWSL title games.

Final first-round standings

  1. North Carolina Courage: 4-0-0, 12 points
  2. Washington Spirit: 2-1-1, 7 points
  3. OL Reign: 1-2-1, 5 points
  4. Houston Dash: 1-1-2, 4 points, -1 goal difference, 5 goals scored
  5. Utah Royals: 1-1-2, 4 points, -1 goal difference, 4 goals scored
  6. Chicago Red Stars: 1-1-2, 4 points, -1 goal difference, 2 goals scored, 1 yellow card
  7. Sky Blue FC: 1-1-2, 4 points, -1 goal difference, 2 goals scored, 4 yellow cards
  8. Portland Thorns: 0-3-1, 3 points

Knockout round matchups

All games through the semifinals are on CBS All Access; the final is on CBS.

  • 1. North Carolina vs. 8. Portland Thorns: Friday, 12:30 p.m.
  • 4. Houston Dash vs. 5. Utah Royals: Friday, 10 p.m.
  • 2. Washington Spirit vs. 7. Sky Blue FC: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
  • 3. OL Reign vs. 6. Chicago Red Stars: Saturday, 10 p.m.
  • Semifinals: The Friday winners advance to one game; the Saturday winners advance to the other. Both semifinals are July 22, one at 12:30 p.m. and one at 10 p.m.; the exact order is still to be determined.
  • Final: July 26, 12:30 p.m.