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Courage clinch playoff spot with 3-2 win over Spirit

The top-ranked North Carolina Courage became the first team in the NWSL to clinch a playoff spot, defeating the Washington Spirit, 3-2. Estefania Banini and Cheyna Williams got on the board for the Spirit, while Sam Mewis scored the Courage’s first goal and Jessica McDonald scored a brace to give the Courage their biggest win of the season thus far.

The game gave the Courage much reason to celebrate. After Sunday’s match against the Houston Dash was postponed due to Hurricane Harvey, the Courage entered the night’s match with six games remaining on their schedule, the most out of any playoff contender. Their three goals was enough for three points and a guaranteed playoff spot, and now they are just one win out from sealing a home semifinal match as well. That means that, after locking down down a home playoff match, the Courage can take it easy the remainder of the season while the other contenders continue battling it out for the final three playoff spots.

For the Spirit, there was little to celebrate about tonight’s match. Last weekend’s loss eliminated them from having a shot at playoff contention, and they dropped an early lead to once again give up three points. To make matters worse, they lost two key players in the process. Estelle Johnson was stretchered off at the start of the second half after pulling up during a run with what appeared to be a noncontact left knee injury. She was later seen walking unaided on the sidelines with her knee heavily bandaged.

The D.C.-based club then went down to 10 players on the field in the 88th minute when Francisca Ordega had to exit the field after the Spirit had already used all of their subs. Ordega collided with North Carolina goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland on the Spirit’s second goal-scoring play and moments later left the field to have her left thigh wrapped. Although she returned and played 5-10 minutes longer, she was visibly limping and eventually had to be assisted off.

Johnson’s and Ordega’s injuries come just a day after it was confirmed that Arielle Ship would be out for the remainder of her rookie season after tearing her ACL in Saturday’s match against the Chicago Red Stars. The Spirit is currently the bottom-ranking team in the league, and a major reason is lack of roster depth because of injuries sustained throughout the season.

The night started off well for the Spirit though. Estefania Banini scored her first goal since July 2016 to give the Spirit the lead in the 8th minute. Cheyna Williams made a blistering run down the far side of the field before cutting around a defender and firing off a shot. Rowland dove and got her palm on Williams’ shot but failed to collect it, allowing Banini to run onto the rebound and easily score the game’s opening goal.

The Spirit maintained the lead throughout the first half despite the Courage being the dominant team throughout. Sam Mewis nearly equalized in the 24th minute after a yellow card-earning foul by Cali Faquharson awarded the Courage a free kick just outside the area, but the USWNT and Courage midfielder sent her shot to the left of the wall and wide of the far post. (Courage assistant coach Scott Vallow was ejected at halftime after getting in a verbal altercation with the referee, possibly in response to the Courage not being awarded a penalty on the play.) Mewis would equalize in the final seconds of the first half, though, when she sent a flicked-on header on target that deflected off the crossbar and into the goal.

Jess McDonald then scored a second-half brace to give the Courage the lead, which they never relinquished. Her first came just after the hour mark when she headed in a free kick by Jaelene Hinkle. Her second came just five minutes later when Mewis played a through ball to Lynn Williams, who played it to McDonald in front of goal. McDonald one-touched the ball past a Spirit defender and Didi Haracic, starting in goal again tonight while Stephanie Labbé was out with an excused absence. The goal is the 35th of McDonald’s NWSL career, putting her in second place behind Sam Kerr for all-time NWSL goals scored.

The Spirit got one one back in the 73rd minute when Rowland came far off her line in attempts of blocking a low cross attempt by Ordega, but she was unsuccessful and Cheyna Williams was there to knock the ball into the wide open net. However, that was the play during which Ordega was hurt, immediately sullying the good mood. That dampened mood (and some time-wasting by the Courage) saw the game play out without any additional scoring, and the Courage won, 3-2. 

As is typical of a midweek match, both teams have quick turnarounds for their next matches. The Spirit will travel to Portland where they will take on the No. 2-ranked Thorns in the Lifetime Game of the Week. Kickoff for that match has been moved up to 3:32 p.m. ET because of extreme heat forecasted in the area that day. The Courage will travel to Chicago, where they will face a tough road test against the third-ranked Red Stars on Sunday, September 3 at 6 p.m. ET.

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