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Courage debut with 1-0 win in Washington

McCall Zerboni getting ready to put away the only goal and the only thing that got by Steph Labbe on Saturday (photo copyright EriMac Photo from The Equalizer)

McCall Zerboni getting ready to put away the only goal and the only thing that got by Steph Labbe on Saturday (photo copyright EriMac Photo from The Equalizer)

In a quasi-rematch of the 2016 NWSL Championship, the North Carolina Courage edged the Washington Spirit, 1-0, in front of 2,400 at the Maryland SoccerPlex. McCall Zerboni’s goal carried the day for the visitors, who may well have had more if not for the stellar play of Spirit keeper Stephanie Labbe.

It was not a traditional rematch since the Courage moved and rebranded after going to penalties before winning the title over the Spirit last October. Even the Spirit, whose brand remained intact, hardly resembled the team that narrowly lost out on both trophies. Two of the players who did return to the Plex, Joanna Lohman and Cheyna Williams, had to leave in the first half with injuries. The Courage also sustained an injury. Elizabeth Eddy lasted less than 10 minutes after being subbed on in the 2nd half before having to leave the game.

The Courage goal came in the 19th minute when Makenzy Doniak found space down the right flank and delivered a pass across the box to Zerboni. Dribbling to a suitable angle, Zerboni beat Labbe for the first goal scored for the new Courage club. It was scored under somewhat unfortunate circumstances as Lohman went down during the sequence and had to come off.

The Zerboni goal was the only thing that would get by Labbe. The Canadian, who nearly left the Spirit due to unrest stemming from her not seeing the field after the Olympics last summer, dominated her box in the air but mostly with a series of spectacular saves. One of them came moments before goal when Zerboni got on the end of an Abby Dahlkemper corner kick and was stopped point blank.

Labbe did her best work in the 20 minutes just after halftime, thwarting Lynn Williams on more than one occasion and making the save on the day on a diving tip wide on Jessica McDonald.

If Labbe was able to frustrate the Courage attackers, no one else was. Williams spent a good portion of the day in space down the left side where Estelle Johnson was no match for her speed. Debinha made a sharp debut in midfield and did well to hold possession and create chances, one of which nearly beat Labbe under the cross bar, but the keeper tipped it over at the last moment.

The Spirit had trouble dealing with the Courage’s speed and defensive prowess. Their best chance came on a counter. Katie Stengel got in behind and had space to get a quality shot but took a touch to forget and sent it haplessly wide.

The Courage (1-0-0, 3 pts) will take their win back to the Triangle and will play in front of their home fans for the first time next Saturday night against the Thorns. Head coach Paul Riley will be on the sidelines for the first time with the Courage next weekend. He was suspended Saturday as part of a two-game ban for an incident with a match official during last year’s semifinal. The Spirit (0-1-0, 0 pts) hit the road and will help the Orlando Pride play the first NWSL match at Orlando City Stadium in the Lifetime Game of the Week.

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