At the first-ever NWSL game in Richmond, the Washington Spirit fell 3-0 to the North Carolina Courage in front of a crowd of 6,235 fans. North Carolina scored twice in the first half hour through Abby Erceg and Jess McDonald before adding a late Kristen Hamilton goal. Washington’s substantial contingent of internationals all made their first appearances of 2018 after missing last week’s win over the UNC Tar Heels.
North Carolina controlled play from kick-off, particularly through attacks from the flanks. The combination of Jess McDonald and former Spirit player Crystal Dunn would test any defense and the Spirit were no exception.
In the 13th minute, North Carolina drew a corner kick on the right side. Abby Dahlkemper delivered a ball that Abby Erceg headed past Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe for the Courage’s first goal of the night. Last week, UNC’s Bridgette Andrzejewski also scored on a similar goal.
Right after that, Dunn played a short ball to McDonald, who pulled off a strong shot that Bledsoe blocked. Dunn collected the rebound, but wasn’t able to convert it as the defense scrambled.
The danger never let up, and McDonald found the back of the net in the 23rd minute. Dunn received a pass on the flank, moving forward before delivering a cross to McDonald in the box. McDonald found a pocket of space to direct her header past Bledsoe.
“I thought the first half hour we were pretty passive, and made a couple mistakes that led to goals,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said. “The Courage are in a completely different place then us, they are playing their fourth or fifth game of preseason and it’s our second.”
North Carolina dominated the first half and the Spirit were relatively fortunate to hold the Courage to two goals. Washington looked like a team that hadn’t played together, which was relatively accurate: this was the first time Mallory Pugh and Ashley Hatch played together up front for the Spirit, while the starting midfield and back four were also playing their first-ever game as units. Meanwhile, the Courage had a very familiar team in place, with the addition of Dunn only making them more of a menace.
Still, around the half hour mark, the Spirit started to improve and the game became more even. The team started to be able to hold the ball for a bit and make some runs upfield often involving rookie Rebecca Quinn, who started the game as a deep-lying midfielder before moving to center back for the second half.
“I thought the last 15 minutes of the first half, we had a little more control over the game,” Gabarra said. “Credit to the players on the field. They took it upon themselves to play better and fought back. I think the biggest thing was we got control of possession and started to move the ball a bit quicker.”
The halftime move that saw Quinn move to center back also involved adding Havana Solaun to the midfield, with Andi Sullivan playing at the base of Washington’s midfield. Asked about her comfort level about the two positions, Quinn said “I like playing holding mid... In terms of center back, I have more international experience, so [in terms of] comfortability I think it’s give or take in both positions,” Quinn said.
In the second half the Spirit were more fluent in possession and started to create some more opportunities. North Carolina also slowed down for their part and weren’t as threatening. Lynn Williams and Dunn were quite potent on counter-attacks, though, with that style providing most of the Courage’s second half looks. Just past the hour mark, Williams caught the Spirit on a counter-attack, only to crash a shot off the crossbar.
Washington had their moments, with Mallory Pugh looking like a threat on the dribble, but their best chance came from former North Carolina player Taylor Smith. Looking more assured after a timid first half, Smith used her speed to burst past several defenders and cross for substitute Francisca Ordega, who slid in but saw her shot go off the post and away.
With six minutes left, Williams caught the Spirit with another counter-attack and delivered a cross from the right flank to Hamilton, who pushed it past Bledsoe for the game’s third and final goal.
Next week, the Spirit go to Seattle for their first regular season game. Kickoff is at 10pm.