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NWSL Challenge Cup: Courage remain perfect with victory over Red Stars, Spirit equalize late against Thorns

NWSL Challenge Cup favorites North Carolina Courage moved one step closer to perfection following a third win on Sunday afternoon.

In a rematch of the 2019 NWSL Championship game, the Courage claimed a 1-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars to move to 3-0-0 in the summer tournament.

The match was a low-scoring affair, with the only difference coming from a header by defender Abby Erceg in the 81st minute. Jaelene Daniels served a cross into the box off a short corner, and Erceg scored off the underside of the crossbar.

Head coach Paul Riley’s side outshot the Red Stars 15-5 as North Carolina resumed a tradition of domination in the Challenge Cup.

For Chicago, their offensive woes are ever-present. The Red Stars have scored just one goal in three matches.

“With the loss of Sam Kerr [in the offseason] we knew they aren’t quite as dangerous,” said Erceg at full time. “We had less to worry about in terms of their speed.” Kerr is a two-time NWSL MVP who left Chicago in favor of Chelsea F.C. Women. The Australian striker scored 34 times in 40 games for the Red Stars.

Chicago traded for Kealia Watt in January to help offset the loss of Kerr. The former Houston striker scored 28 goals in 114 appearances, but she has yet to score for her new team.

Watt had one of the best chances of the game in the 20th minute when she picked the pocket of U.S. Women’s National Team center back Abby Dahlkemper. She cruised on a solo run towards the goal as defenders nipped at her heels, but goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland made a huge one-on-one save.

North Carolina hold a commanding lead atop the Challenge Cup standings with nine points. They next face Sky Blue FC on July 13 in their final preliminary match.

Chicago remains tied for last place with one point and next face the Utah Royals on July 12.

Thorns stay winless in draw versus Spirit

The Washington Spirit came from behind to tie the Portland Thorns 1-1 on Sunday night. Both teams pushed for victory until the final whistle with neither team choosing to bunker deep and defend.

The match proved entertaining for neutrals as highlight-worthy goals stole the show.

U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Lindsey Horan commenced the scoring in style in the second half. Off a free kick from Meghan Klingenberg, Horan soared through the air to score a Robin Van Persie-esque diving header.

Not to be outdone, the Spirit responded with what could be the assist of the tournament just eight minutes later. Ashley Sanchez is now one of the few soccer players in the world who can add the rare ‘backheel volley assist’ to her resume. Sam Staab instinctively headed the ball back where it came from, and Klingenberg was unable to keep it out of the net.

“I honestly have no idea how it happened,” said Sanchez. “I saw it and tried to get back into the mix. We were down one at the time.

“We just wanted to get one back as fast as possible,” she continued. “A tie and a point is good enough for now.”

A draw for Washington keeps the Spirit ahead of Portland in the standings. The Spirit are now tied for second place with a trio of teams (but have the worst goal differential of the three clubs). The Thorns have just two points to their name.

Both teams benefit from fresh legs by the time their next game rolls around. Washington will battle the tournament’s biggest surprise, the Houston Dash, on Sunday, July 12. Portland will yet again seek their first win against OL Reign on Monday, July 13. All games will air on CBS All Access.

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