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Injuries, set pieces haunt Washington Spirit in 3-2 loss to the North Carolina Courage

An injury to Estelle Johnson overshadowed a hard-fought loss to the league leaders

Tony Quinn/Washington Spirit

Despite finally managing to score on the North Carolina Courage after two shutout losses earlier this year, the Washington Spirit still couldn’t solve their nemesis. North Carolina completed a season sweep, winning 3-2 thanks to two goals from Jess McDonald and another from Samantha Mewis. Washington had goals from Estefania Banini and Cheyna Williams, but ultimately couldn’t come up with an equalizer.

Facing the second of three games in a week, Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra made two changes to his lineup. Estefania Banini came into the midfield, while Cali Farquharson made her first start in nearly a year after tearing her ACL late last season.

North Carolina, as is typical for their high-powered attack, managed to force DiDi Haracic into a save in the 2nd minute, They carved out an even better chance in the 6th minute, as Lynn Williams raced past Caprice Dydasco to keep a ball in along the endline. Williams passed back for Denise O’Sullivan, who really should have scored. Fortunately for the Spirit, the Irish international side-footed wide.

The Spirit hadn’t been able to attack much at all, but their first move upfield put them into the lead in the 8th minute. Cheyna Williams picked up the ball near midfield and launched into a dribbling run, rounding Abby Erceg in the process. Williams forced Katelyn Rowland into a diving save, but Rowland couldn’t keep hold of the ball. Estefania Banini, trailing the play, ran in unchallenged to tap the ball in for her first goal of the season.

The Courage stayed on the attack. Abby Dahlkemper’s corner in the 14th minute was nodded just over the bar by Jess McDonald, who was active throughout the early stages. McDonald’s long throw-ins also caused some havoc a few times, with McCall Zerboni sending two shots wide after pouncing on loose balls.

Haracic was called to come off her line more than once to clear, with a 32nd minute read preventing Lynn Williams from a breakaway. The Spirit finally came to grips with the game a bit after that, with Banini curling a 34th minute shot just wide after good work from Alyssa Kleiner to keep the play alive.

Estelle Johnson came up with two excellent slide tackles on McDonald, with a 42nd minute tackle inside the box possibly saving a goal. However, the Spirit couldn’t maintain their shutout through to halftime, with North Carolina scoring in first half stoppage time. A long free kick into the box from Dahlkemper was flicked towards goal by Samantha Mewis, arcing over Haracic, glancing off the post, and going in.

Washington has had a horrific run of bad luck with injuries, and that appeared to happen once again early in the second half. Johnson went down without any contact from a North Carolina player, with early indications pointing to a knee problem. Since the first week of September 2016, six different Spirit players have suffered a torn ACL.

In the 62nd minute, the Spirit fell behind on another set piece goal. This time, Dahlkemper’s free kick from the touchline picked out McDonald, who rose up in a crown to nod the ball down past Haracic and into the lower corner.

The Courage, showing their characteristic relentlessness, padded their lead just four minutes later. Mewis claimed a loose ball at midfield before feeding Lynn Williams down the right wing. The USWNT striker quickly crossed the ball into the center of the box, where McDonald had slashed across Whitney Church to prod the ball home from seven yards.

Haracic had to dive out to block a 68th minute cross, with O’Sullivan lashing the rebound into the outside netting. Two minutes later, she had to come up with a great save to tip the ball after Kristen Hamilton’s shot appeared destined for the upper corner.

Washington, despite appearing overmatched at times, still kept fighting. A 74th minute sprint down the right from Francisca Ordega helped the Spirit get within one. Ordega’s cross into the goalmouth was glanced towards goal by a Courage defender, with Cheyna Williams making sure it got over the line with an emphatic finish.

Washington’s attempts at a comeback were hit in the 86th minute, as Ordega - who had come on as a sub in the 59th minute - had to be removed after appearing to tweak her hamstring. Ordega had been out for six weeks with a knee injury, and had only returned over the weekend. Having used all of their subs, the Spirit moved to a 441, with Cheyna Williams all alone up front.

The Spirit put in a lot of effort to get level, but the Courage made the numerical advantage count. Despite having 7 minutes of stoppage time, the Spirit were largely pinned into their own end, leaving Rowland with little to do. With the win, North Carolina became the first team to clinch a playoff spot.

Washington is back in action this weekend, facing the Portland Thorns Saturday in the NWSL game of the week. That game will be on Lifetime at 3:30pm.