The North Carolina Courage dropped their second consecutive game on Saturday, Sept. 25, falling 3-1 to NJ/NY Gotham FC on the road.
The Courage started the game well with an early goal, but a 28th minute penalty from Carli Lloyd flipped momentum in Gotham’s favor.
Lloyd’s penalty kick didn’t come without a touch of controversy, however, as it appeared Margaret Purce brought Diane Caldwell down before Caldwell brought Purce down with a jersey tug just inside the box.
“We had some good moments,” said NC Courage head coach Paul Riley. “Went 1-0 up and were coasting I thought. We had everything going, and then the penalty changed the whole game. … When they had possession, they got more dangerous. When we had possession, we just didn't look as dangerous as we should look.”
After the game, Riley said he felt Caldwell was indeed fouled just prior to the penalty being called.
As has become the norm in recent weeks, the Courage changed up the formation once again, going with a 3-6-1 against Gotham. Abby Erceg, Caldwell and Kaleigh Kurtz made up the back three, while Denise O’Sullivan and Angharad James started at the base of midfield. Carson Pickett and Ryan Williams provided the width with Meredith Speck and Amy Rodriguez sitting just behind Lynn Williams.
“To be honest with you, we were worried about their peace up front,” Riley said. “We thought during those ebbs and flows, when it was an ebb we could defend with five and when it was a flow we could defend with three. But it was more so done for the midfield to get a grip of the ball and the midfielder to get better possession.”
Making her first start since Aug. 7, James scored the first goal of her Courage career to put them up in the 20th minute with a rocket from just outside the box. The goal was the first for the Courage in 290 minutes of play, a stretch dating all the way back to Speck’s stoppage-time goal in the Courage’s 4-0 win over Kansas City on Aug. 21.
“I have a little brother who's five and he played his third or fourth game and he scored his first goal and he had Man of the Match this morning and my dad said to me, ‘This is going to be your first goal today as well,’” James said. “So, it's such a nice moment. When I scored, I just thought of my little brother and my family.”
The early lead did not last long. Lloyd brought Gotham level from the penalty spot in the 28th minute and Purce gave her team the lead just eight minutes later, turning the Courage’s one-goal lead into a one-goal deficit in just 16 minutes.
After the game, Kurtz called the penalty deflating after the Courage started the game well.
“I felt like after the PK, we deflated as a team and just really started hiding, I guess is not really the perfect way to put it,” Kurtz said. “But you know, it just really was a deflator.”
Purce was left completely unmarked on her goal, allowing Ifeoma Onumonu to find her wide open in the box after making a darting run down the sideline.
Riley went to his bench in the 63rd minute, bringing on Jess McDonald for Caldwell and Havana Solaun for Amy Rodriguez. With the move, the Courage reverted to a back four with the box midfield and McDonald joined Lynn Williams up front.
“Jess was pretty good when she came in to be honest,” Riley said. “She created some good situations up front and certainly helped Lynn out. There's no doubt about that.”
Substitute Paige Monaghan gave Gotham an insurance goal in the 82nd minute, putting the game out of the Courage’s reach.
The Courage were without Debinha and Merritt Mathias for the game with Mathias serving a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation and Debinha being unable to return to the US in time after the international break.
The loss puts the Courage in an awkward spot as the end of the season draws near. While the reigning NWSL champions still sit in third, just six points separate them from the Washington Spirit and Houston Dash, who still each have a game to play this weekend and currently sit just outside of the playoff picture.
With five games remaining this season, the Courage aren’t a lock to make the playoffs and yet, trailing OL Reign by just three points, they are firmly in the fight for a first-round bye. Having gone winless in their last four, the Courage need to turn it around quickly to secure their spot in the postseason.
Next up for the Courage will be the Washington Spirit, who come to WakeMed Soccer Park on Friday, Oct. 1. The Courage have a touch of breathing room, but with the season quickly coming to an end, they need to get back in the win column.