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NC Courage grind out a 1-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars

Abby Erceg provided the telling moment in the 81st minute.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 5 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

It wasn’t pretty but the North Carolina Courage made it three wins out or three today at the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. The one-nil win over the Chicago Red Stars puts the Courage on top of the standings and in pole position for a great seeding once the quarter finals matches are set to be drawn.

Abby Erceg was the hero today for the Courage who had made six changes from the team that saw off the Washington Spirit the last time out. The Kiwi defender was not only effective near goal but also kept the Red Stars from gaining any good looks on goal at the other end. Head coach Paul Riley remarked yesterday about Erceg, “I’ve had some good captains in my years of coaching but she’s really top-level” and she was at her very best today against Chicago. It was a gigantic performance from Erceg and she got the goal that her overall play deserved.

Chicago tried to counter the Corrage’s usual attacking play by placing Julie Ertz in the backline and for 80 plus minutes, it worked. Ertz was always there when called upon and marshaled the Red Stars backline well. It nullified the usual amount of shots the Courage take per average and made it harder for the likes of Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn or Debinha to be able to aim for goal. In fact, the player who tested Alyssa Naeher the most was Samantha Mewis who twice came from deep to shoot from outside the penalty area. Unfortunately for North Carolina, Naeher was up to the task every time.

Erceg needed to be at her best as Chicago looked to try and possess the ball well inside the Courage half and pounce quickly through Kealia Watt or Rachel Hill on the flanks. Both Watt and Hill did, on occasion, find some space in front of goal but Erceg, along with Abby Dahlkemper, were quick to close them down and thus make their opportunity to score harder than usual. The one time that both Erceg and Dahlkemper were caught out, Katelyn Rowland stood tall and prevented the perfect “smash and grab” goal by Watt in the 21st minute. Watt had stoled the ball off of Dahlkemper in midfield, raced clear with Dahlkemper trying to stop and then with only Rowland to beat, could not lift the ball past the Courage goalkeeper.

As the game was drawing to its end, the Courage won another corner and decided to play a short corner. Jaelene Daniels scooped the ball into the box, Erceg lost her marker and powered her header off the crossbar and into the net. That was the clearest sight of goal either team had gotten all game long and Erceg did not waste the opportunity.

This wasn’t a vintage North Carolina Courage performance. The overall play was slow and even when they won the ball back with that press they’re known for, the final ball was off which meant that they could never get a clean look on goal. All that constant pressure finally told though as Chicago fell asleep at a critical moment and Abby Erceg was there to punish them for it.