New Zealand’s Erceg Suffers Heartbreak in Dramatic Draw with China
By Gunnar Berndt
Group A: Canada vs. Netherlands 1-1
Red Stars: Karina LeBlanc (GK), Adriana Leon (FWD), Melissa Tancredi (FWD) – all Canada
It was a day of mixed emotions for Canada, as the side featuring three Red Stars standouts advanced to the knockout stages but again struggled to put on a convincing performance in the draw with World Cup debutants Netherlands, which saw them give up a late equalizer. Chicago forwards Adriana Leon and Melissa Tancredi experienced a role reversal of sorts, as up-and-comer Leon started and went the distance up top while veteran Tancredi entered the match around the hour mark. The Red Stars’ legendary Canucks goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc continued to serve as backup to starter Erin McLeod.
The hosts opened the match in forceful fashion, as Sophie Schmidt’s looping header bounced off the top of the crossbar before Ashley Lawrence took advantage of some dubious Dutch defending by side-footing the ball past goalkeeper Loes Geurts and inside the left post for the go-ahead goal. Lawrence had another dangerous attempt shortly after her tally, but the match subsequently evened out and the fans in Montreal had to wait until the second half for the next close look, Canada’s Jessie Flemings sending her powerful drive from the top of the box just wide of the left upright.
The Canucks were fortunate not to concede a penalty kick on two separate occasions. First the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens entered the area and saw her attempted layoff ricochet off Kadeisha Buchanan and strike the hand of Josee Belanger, then Allysha Chapman’s slide tackle appeared to first bring down Manon Melis before making contact with the ball. Melis again came close to getting her side on the board late in the game, as she broke in on goal and forced a spectacular kick save from former Chicago netminder McLeod.
Instead of hanging their heads, the Oranjes showed remarkable resilience in continuing to push forward in the closing stages, and they were finally rewarded with three minutes remaining. Second-half substitute Kirsten van de Ven found herself wide open inside the area on a feed by Melis and produced a ruthless finish by firing past the onrushing McLeod to make her side a likely third-place finisher from the group behind Canada and China.
Group A: New Zealand vs. China 2-2
Red Stars: Abby Erceg (DEF) – New Zealand
Captained by Red Stars defender Abby Erceg, New Zealand suffered heartbreak in its final group match against a strong Chinese side, which sealed its spot in the knockout rounds with a 2-2 draw. Needing a win to have a shot at advancing, the Football Ferns put on a strong attacking display but in the end were unable to grab all three points, Erceg seeing her second-half header dramatically cleared off the line.
After New Zealand shot-stopper Erin Nayler managed to keep out an early Wang Shanshan header, Rebekah Scott opened the scoring at the other end, hammering home at the far post following a corner from the left. Wang Lisi subsequently sent a warning shot toward the Ferns’ frame on a 34th-minute free-kick, and she found the net on another set-piece late in the half, as a highly questionable handball call on Betsy Hassett sent the midfielder to the spot for the equalizer.
China pulled ahead after the break when Wu Haiyan’s outstanding in-swinger from the right flank was bravely headed home at the doorstep by Wang Shanhan. However, the lead would only last four minutes, Hannah Wilkinson tapping home for New Zealand on a cross from the left that was headed back toward the center of the box by Amber Hearn.
The Football Ferns were fortunate not to fall behind again when a wide open Wang Shanshan attempted to redirect Wang Lisi’s cross on frame with a full-body extension but failed to make good contact. That set the stage for one of the most dramatic moments of the match, Chicago’s Erceg rising above her marker on a corner kick from the right and heading it toward the right post, only to see the ball nodded off the line by well-positioned defender Liu Shanshan.
China came within inches of grabbing three points late, as Wang Shanshan kneed the ball on frame on a long free-kick to force a spectacular fingertip save from Nayler. It would be the final opportunity of a match that added to New Zealand’s reputation as “the best team to never have made it out of the group phase.”