The North Carolina Courage maintained its perfect start to the NWSL Challenge Cup with a 1-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday afternoon.
With nine points from the opening three games of the preliminary round, the Courage looks likely to lock up the top seed heading into the knockout round. The two teams closest behind the Courage, the Houston Dash and Utah Royals, both have four points from two games and if either fail to win their third game, the Courage will lock up the top spot before it kicks off against Sky Blue FC in its final preliminary game.
The Washington Spirit (currently on three points from two games) could equal the Courage’s nine points, but the Courage has the head-to-head tiebreaker after its 2-0 win on Wednesday evening.
Center back Abby Erceg came up with the game’s only goal in the 81st minute, flicking a header just out of Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher’s reach. Erceg’s header came from a well-worked short corner routine which saw the ball played back to Jaelene Daniels who lobbed the ball into the box, where Erceg was able to redirect it off the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net.
“I think it comes down to fitness at the end of the day,” Erceg said during the CBS post-game coverage. “We have always had really tough battles against Chicago, they seem to be our Achilles heel, and they played really well. Our first half was performance wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be, so when we came out we wanted to be a little bit sharper, a little bit quicker and we knew that toward the end of the game our fitness would really pick up and give us a bit of an advantage. We took advantage of that on a set piece and obviously I was really happy about that.”
While the Courage was able to come away with all three points, it was not a fantastic attacking performance from the defending NWSL champions with just five of the Courage’s 15 shots finding the target.
It was, however, a solid defensive performance for the Courage as the team managed to keep a clean sheet for the second game in a row, holding Chicago’s attack to just five shots, only two of which tested keeper Katelyn Rowland.
“We know with the loss of Sam Kerr from last year, their threat up front wasn’t quite as dangerous as it has been in the past,” Erceg said. “We had a little bit less to worry about in terms of speed, which is good for us. We knew that we had to keep a tight back line, make sure there was a lot of good communication passing on players and I thought we did a really good job of that today.”
With it being the team’s third game in eight days, Courage head coach Paul Riley continued to change up his starting XI with Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, Crystal Dunn, Kristen Hamilton and Abby Dahlkemper all returning to the starting lineup after starting the 2-0 win over Washington on the bench. Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and rookie right back Addisyn Merrick both headed to the bench, being replaced in the starting lineup by Rowland and Ryan Williams, respectively.
The Courage will have a full week of rest before it’s final game of the preliminary round of the NWSL Challenge Cup on July 13 against Sky Blue FC. The game will kick off at 10:00 p.m. EST and will be broadcast on CBS All Access.