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North Carolina Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy secures the ball against the Orlando Pride on Saturday, May 1, 2021 at WakeMed Soccer Park. Murphy made two saves in the match, which ended 0-0.

WASHINGTON — Casey Murphy was perfect for 113 minutes, but for a goalkeeper, one mistake is all it takes.

After denying the Washington Spirit time and time again through 113 minutes of excellent goalkeeping Murphy finally faltered, coughing up a rebound pounced on by Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch. 

The goal proved decisive and after 120 minutes of end-to-end playoff soccer, the North Carolina Courage were knocked out of the National Women's Soccer League playoffs by the Washington Spirit, 1-0, on Nov. 7.

Murphy made 13 saves on the night as her and Washington Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe duked it out to keep their teams in it.

“Her performance speaks for itself,” said Courage interim head coach Sean Nahas. “How she's not nominated for goalkeeper of the year is beyond me. And Aubrey Bledsoe is a brilliant goalkeeper too. The save she made on [Amy Rodriguez] is world class. That was entertaining football. And I said it before the game too, the keepers were going to be the key piece in this whole thing and they were.”

The Courage had an incredibly tough road into the playoffs. Between the emotional toll of everything going on in the league, which Nahas described the Courage as being at ground zero of, and the congested schedule, Nahas was in awe of the players after the game.

“In my mind, I'm sort of breaking the season up into two: pre-four weeks ago and post-four weeks ago,” Nahas said. “And the team I saw at the end is the team that I know. … This wasn't a season about football. Unfortunately, it came down to a season of emotions and mentality and things thrown on these players that should never have been thrown on them. And I say that across the league, not just our players. …  I'm proud to be a part of the league. I'm proud of the players in the league and what they're fighting for.”

In a season where players from across the league came together in these moments, Nahas said one particular moment summed it up for him.

“As we were walking off, all the Spirit fans were thanking us and cheering us on,” Nahas said “And that, to me, sums it up. Everyone knows what we've gone through. And the fact that people saw us perform the way we did, and put a smile on people's faces and our players being able to leave with their heads high. To have opposition fans thanking us and cheering us, that to me sums it up and shows the level of character of this group and shows the respect that they've earned across the league.”

Captain Abby Erceg said the team had been in survival mode over the last few weeks, going game-by-game.

“I think it was always going to be a bit of a tall order for us,” Erceg said. “We all knew that. And we just had to give it everything that we could and then go as far as we could. … I think at this point, we’re survivors. We just know we can fight. We know we can get through pretty much anything at this point.” 

Having just made the playoffs by the skin of its teeth, sneaking in thanks to a draw in its final game and some help by the Spirit in its own final game, the Courage came in confident. Prior to the game, forward Lynn Williams said “playoff Courage is a little bit different than regular season Courage,” and that showed.

“And the one thing I told the players at pregame was playoffs was a blank canvas,” Nahas said. “And I told them I wanted them to make this canvas today a masterpiece. And they did. It was an absolute masterpiece for them. And they all left their signatures on it. And we can take that masterpiece now they can bring it to next year and hopefully build upon that. But they put on an exhibition, and sometimes you just don't win. There's nothing wrong with that. Because they've already won.”

North Carolina started the game looking like a completely different team than it had in the final month of the season. The off-ball energy was there and the offense was finding each other in dangerous areas. Debinha and Rodriguez were especially impressive in the first half, running the show.

“I wish I had a bit more time with Deb,” Rodriguez said. “She's a fantastic player for this club. And individually, she has so much ability to unlock so much offense for this team. And she's a pleasure to play with. I just wish we had more minutes tonight together and more games ahead, because I think the future is bright with her in this club. And she's so good that you never can take your eyes off her.”

Despite the energy and impressive play, the Courage couldn’t capitalize on its advantage and went into the break scoreless. Not to be overshadowed, the Spirit had plenty of chances of its own, and the first half was a wide-open affair with plenty of end-to-end action.

The Courage continued this at the start of the second half, but Washington slowly established a lot of control as the half wore on. Especially for a ten minute stretch late in the half, the Spirit poured on chance after chance, but Murphy, and some excellent blocks from the center back duo of Erceg and Kaleigh Kurtz, kept things level.

Erceg and Kurtz have formed an incredibly stout defensive duo this season as Kurtz has come into her own as a defender in the league. After the game, both Erceg and Nahas had a lot of praise for Kurtz in her breakout season.

“I can't say enough good things about KK,” Erceg said. “This year, the shoes that she had to step in and fill, obviously with [Abby Dahlkemper] leaving, were huge. And I think she was up to the task. I think she's had a really, really good year, a bit of a breakout year for her I think. And our partnership, especially towards the end, was really, really good.”

Although the Courage did not want its season to end where it did, the players are ready for some rest after a long and difficult season.

“I think the season length alone is so long that people are looking forward just physically to resting,” Erceg said. “And then you add the stress on top of that. Yes. Psychologically, emotionally, mentally, we're looking forward to resting. But on the flip side of that, you don't want to rest earlier than you need to. You want to go through and play all the games, obviously. You want to win all of the games. So it is unfortunate that the rest comes a little bit early… if we could choose the rest versus going through, you'd obviously want to go through.”

Sports Editor

I'm Nicholas Schnittker, one of the two assistant sports editors for Technician. I'm in the class of 2022 and am currently majoring in communication and minoring in journalism. I have been at Technician since August 2018 and an editor since May 2019.