The North Carolina Courage top the Washington Spirit in a late-night barnburner
North Carolina midfielder McCall Zerboni scored a brace in the 4-2 win over the Washington Spirit at the Maryland Soccerplex. | Photo: @TheNCCourage

The Washington Spirit (1W-0D-2L) struck first in the third minute of a Saturday night match against the North Carolina Courage (3-0-0), but the defense couldn't answer the call on a blustery night in Boyds, Maryland. The 4-2 final score in favor of the visiting team is the most goals scored in a game thus far in the 2018 National Women's Soccer League season. 

An exhilarating first half

The home fans were treated to a Spirit goal at the very beginning of the match. It took only three minutes for United States Women's National Team star midfielder Mallory Pugh to score her second goal of the season. It was the first goal that the Courage had allowed in 2018, but the team wasn't worried. Courage goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo said "I had no doubt in my mind that we would get one right back at them," and head coach Paul Riley said "I was pleased we went down tonight. I know it sounds stupid, but me and Scott, you know, you wonder what the reaction from the team is going to be." 

Spirit midfielder Mallory Pugh scored the first goal of the season against the Courage in the third minute of the match. | Photo: @WashSpirit
Spirit midfielder Mallory Pugh scored the first goal of the season against the Courage in the third minute of the match. | Photo: @WashSpirit

That enthusiasm and confidence was proven correct in the 20th minute. The Courage pushed the ball quickly down the pitch, and it seemed to go off the arm of a Spirit defender in the box. While everyone paused slightly to see if there would be a penalty awarded, Courage forward Crystal Dunn took control of the ball about ten yards from goal and slipped it into the back of the net.

The 1-1 scoreline would last just four minutes. A foul was called against the Spirit inside the semicircle at the top of their 18-yard box. The ref set up the wall a little further away from the ball than is standard, and midfielder McCall Zerboni took a shot that found the left side netting on the inside of the goal. Zerboni rarely takes free kicks, so the Spirit were seemingly caught off guard by the shot, and the Courage took a 2-1 advantage into the half. 

A wide-open second half

The Courage opened up the second half with a strong scoring opportunity in the 46th minute that was saved by Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, but it only took until the 48th minute for Zerboni to score the brace. Defender Abby Dahlkemper passed the ball in on a corner kick to midfielder Kristen Hamilton. Hamilton turned with a defender on her back and crossed the ball into the six-yard box. The ball got past Bledsoe and was redirected on frame by Zerboni. 

The Spirit were reenergized by the early Courage goal, and they generated ten strong minutes on offense. Dahlkemper stopped a dangerous clear by tackling the ball out for a corner kick, but after the ball was passed into the box on the restart by Spirit midfielder Havana Solaun. The pass found the feet of forward Francisca Ordega who easily beat D'Angelo in the 58th minute to pull the home team back within one.

The final goal of the game came in the 66th minute. Courage midfielder Lynn Williams collected a through ball and cut the ball from left to right across the top of the box. The Spirit defense failed to close down on her, and she took a low shot that just skipped past the outstretched hand of Bledsoe and bounced into the left side of the goal. The game would end at 4-2 despite both teams having multiple opportunities in the final 25 minutes.

Pugh leaves the game early

Losing the game was tough enough for the Spirit, but when Mallory Pugh left the game in the 75th minute it went from bad to worse. After the game, Spirit head coach Jim Gaberra said that Pugh thought it was a hamstring but he didn't have any other information at that time. Pugh has scored two of the four goals that the Spirit have scored across the first three games of the season. If she is forced to miss time it would continue the injury misfortune that plagued the Spirit in 2017. 

The teams looking forward

The Courage will be tested with two more games this week. On Wednesday they will host the Seattle Reign FC before their second home game against Utah Royals FC on Saturday. Riley mentioned that midfielders Sam Mewis and Elizabeth Eddy would be available for that Wednesday match, so they might be able to mix up the midfield to rest some of the tired legs.

The Spirit's next game will be on the road against the Portland Thorns FC, which presents one of the toughest challenges in the NWSL. Playing at Providence Park in Portland is one of the hardest environments in the NWSL, but the Spirit will be fighting tooth-and-nail to earn a point to prevent themselves from falling too far behind early in the season.