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Washington Spirit come close, but can’t quite hold off North Carolina Courage

Abby Erceg’s 63rd minute goal undid an otherwise solid Spirit defensive effort

Courtesy of Washington Spirit

A lone set piece goal from North Carolina Courage gave them a 1-0 win against the Washington Spirit on Saturday night in Cary, NC. Despite holding off the Courage under intense pressure for an hour, the Spirit left Abby Erceg open to head in a 63rd minute free kick that proved to be the difference. The Spirit didn’t create many chances themselves, but saw a couple golden opportunities go awry.

Argentine midfielder Estefania Banini made her first start for the Spirit since leaving for the Copa America Femenina in March, starting as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. Center back Estelle Johnson missed her first minutes of the season due to a hamstring strain, with Rebecca Quinn taking her place.

Samantha Mewis didn’t waste any time before creating one of North Carolina’s best opportunities of the night. Mewis played a give and go in the midfield before finding Dunn behind Caprice Dydasco on the Spirit’s left. Dunn gathered the ball with tons of space before going to goal, but Aubrey Bledsoe made a huge 3rd minute save to keep the score at zero.

Despite North Carolina’s constant attacks, the Spirit did well to keep Bledsoe from being too busy. With the Courage known for thriving in end-to-end games, Washington did a good job of staying compact and managing the game’s tempo.

Still, the Courage nearly got on the board in the 15th minute after Mewis and Dunn combined. The latter crossed for Jess McDonald, who crashed into Dydasco while heading on frame. Bledsoe didn’t catch the initial shot, but just barely got her hands on the ball before McDonald could poke the rebound home.

Banini made an positive impact on the Spirit’s attack, using her footwork and creativity to get away from Mewis and McCall Zerboni several times. However, much to the chagrin of the Spirit bench, the Courage were able to commit minor fouls to prevent counter-attacks.

Dunn, despite being surrounded by Spirit players, made enough space for herself at the top of the box to pull a shot off that Bledsoe managed to tip out wide around the half hour mark.

This was shortly followed by one of the few times Washington got out on the run without a foul. After clearing a free kick, Mallory Pugh took off with the ball and some help. Eventually working a give-and-go with Ashley Hatch, Pugh beat the defense, rounded goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland, but could only shoot wide from an angle. The attack boosted the Spirit, who saw Banini’s curling shot following good work from Dydasco saved by Rowland.

Francisca Ordega was booked in the 38th minute for persistent infringement, and that somewhat dubious call forced the Spirit to move her up front for the rest of the half and then replace her with Havana Solaun at halftime.

Washington kept at it, and had their best chance of the night three minutes into the second half. Andi Sullivan’s free kick from near the midfield line found Hatch, who rose up to knock the ball down for an open Tori Huster. Reaching out, Huster couldn’t get full power on her shot, but it was still headed into the corner before Rowland saved at full stretch. Pugh turned the rebound into another short-range shot, but Rowland stopped that as well.

Just after the Spirit brought Meggie Dougherty Howard in for Banini to shore up the midfield, the Courage got their goal. Jaelene Hinkle hit a 63rd minute free kick from the right into the box, and Courage captain Abby Erceg was wide open in the middle to nod the ball past Bledsoe from the top of the six.

The fatigue of North Carolina’s first hour of pressure started to wear on the Spirit, but Washington pushed for an equalizer. Dougherty Howard had a solid 80th minute look from the top of the box that went high, and shortly after that Taylor Smith had a cross that wound up floating to Rowland. In the game’s final moments, Quinn found Dydasco on the left, and the resulting cross found Hatch, but North Carolina was able to force it out for a corner that came to nothing.

With the loss the Spirit are now in eighth place with a 1-2-4 (W-D-L) record, having gone five games without a win. Next week, the Spirit host a Portland Thorns team in a similar spot, as the defending champions have gone four in a row without a victory.