Despite an early goal from Mallory Pugh, the Washington Spirit suffered a 4-2 defeat against the North Carolina Courage. After a relatively even, back-and-forth first half, the Courage controlled most of the play after the break. One goal from Crystal Dunn and two from McCall Zerboni gave the visitors a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, even after Francisca Ordega briefly pulled the Spirit back within one.
“I thought overall the backline was not as good as it has been, but it’s a difficult challenge against North Carolina,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said. “I think it was certainly much better than when we played them in preseason.”
Mallory Eubanks, a national team replacement player for the Spirit due to Estefania Banini and Yanara Aedo being involved with the Copa America Femenina, made her first pro start up front. Pugh dropped into the midfield alongside Joanna Lohman, who made her first start since tearing her ACL last year.
“We had to replace [Rebecca] Quinn in the six role and Andi was the choice there. Putting [Pugh] in midfield was simply to get [her] on the ball more and exploit the spaces and the opportunities to create chance against Carolina’s shape and their system. I thought it worked very well,” Gabarra said after the game.
It took the Spirit less than three minutes open the scoring. Caprice Dydasco moved the ball up the left side to Pugh in a huge pocket of space just inside the Courage half. Pugh slashed into the middle before trying to dish to Lohman at the top of the box. Jaelene Hinkle intercepted, but the ball caromed off of Abby Dahlkemper‘s heel, giving the Spirit a second chance. Pugh took a touch before firing a shot that took a deflection off of Dahlkemper, putting it into the upper corner past Sabrina D’Angelo.
North Carolina pressured the Spirit, forcing Washington to play at the high tempo the Courage prefer, with both sides getting chances as a result. Jess McDonald had two early looks for the visitors, including one on a mix-up between Aubrey Bledsoe and the defense that caused a hectic scramble. Bledsoe tipped a Crystal Dunn shot from long distance over the bar soon thereafter. Francisca Ordega was played in behind the defense by Pugh in the 16th minute, her shot from an angle troubling D’Angelo before the Canadian veteran could grab it at the second attempt.
Dunn scored in the 20th minute, her first-ever goal for North Carolina coming against her old club. Lynn Williams gathered a ball played down the left wing, firing a cross that may have hit Whitney Church’s arm. The deflection gave Williams a chance to keep the play alive, popping the ball up for Dunn to volley in from six yards.
Four minutes later, the Courage took the lead. Bledsoe, who came out to punch a long ball away, was called for using her hands just outside the 18-yard box. The Courage set up for a free kick. Hinkle nudged it slightly forward for McCall Zerboni, whose shot curled over the Spirit’s wall and past Bledsoe.
North Carolina started to press more, getting the kind of game they thrive on. Dunn picked out McDonald in the 33rd minute only for Bledsoe to deny the veteran striker. Washington replied with the last look of the half, with Ashley Hatch doing well to create a cross for herself. Hinkle couldn’t clear, giving Eubanks a chance to nod the ball down to Lohman, whose looping shot ended up going right at D’Angelo.
Less than three minutes into the second half, the Courage extended their lead with a rehearsed set piece. Dahlkemper played a low corner kick to Denise O’Sullivan, who instead of passing it back opted to turn, escaping Caprice Dydasco and Eubanks to find Zerboni for a tap-in.
“The other corner that’s a mistake defensively, letting a player turn and bring the ball across the six,” Gabarra said of what turned out to be the game-winner.
Washington came back with a set piece goal of their own in the 57th minute. Havana Solaun, having entered the game just three minutes earlier,played a corner kick short to Dydasco. Dydasco’s shot was half-cleared out to Solaun, who drove a low cross to Ordega for a one-time finish from five yards.
The Courage weren’t shaken by conceding, though, and padded their lead with a 66th minute goal. Williams sauntered in from the wing, dribbling 20 yards or so across the field under virtually no pressure then took a low shot from around 27 yards out that went past Bledsoe.
The news got worse for Washington in the 75th minute, as Pugh exited with what Gabarra termed an “ache in her hamstring” following the game. Tori Huster came in, with the resulting shuffle of players seeing Taylor Smith take up a midfield role while substitute Meggie Dougherty Howard — initially playing in the midfield after replacing Eubanks — switching to right back.
The changes didn’t give the Spirit any traction, though, as North Carolina controlled the game from that point on, nearly adding to their lead. Washington wasn’t completely out of the game, but ultimately they weren’t able to carve out any big chances to mount a comeback.
The loss drops Washington to 1-2-0 on the season. Next weekend the Spirit travel to Oregon to play the Portland Thorns on Friday night at 10:30pm.