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Recap: North Carolina Courage defeat Washington Spirit 2-1 in the NWSL Challenge Cup Final, questions about player safety ensue

The players deserve better

NWSL: Challenge Cup Final-Washington Spirit vs North Carolina Courage Lewis Gettier-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Spirit lost the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup Final 2-1 to the North Carolina Courage. The loss was the Spirit’s first in a competitive match since August 7, 2021, and their first under Kris Ward. The match began as a thrilling game between two ultra talented teams, but decisions made in lieu of player safety led to several awful moments toward the end.

Ten minutes in the match was unfolding the way the Courage would have wanted. Though their pressure and development of quick transition opportunities was wreaking havoc, it was Hatch who had the best early opportunity. In the 9th minute Sanchez was able to get on the ball, turn and dribble into space, and spray a ball wide to Rodman in the box. Last season’s Rookie of the Year sent a ball in in to Hatch in front of goal but last year’s Golden Boot winner had her shot saved by Katelyn Rowland.

A minute later, Kerolin had the ball in the net after Debinha worked some magic on the sideline to spring free and feed her Brazilian teammate at the top of the box. The next ten minutes saw the Courage come close to a second multiple times. Kerolin remained a problem as her devastating dribbling kept Spirit defenders at bay and on their heel. After some good dribbling she sent a ball across the box that required a terrific 1v1 save from Aubrey Kingsbury.

Around the 25th minute the Spirit slowed the tempo and were able to grow into the game. Their off ball movement started to open up spaces in the Courage defense. In the 35th minute Taylor Aylmer found Rodman in a pocket of space at the top of the box and fed the ball in to her feet. Rodman made a clever slip pass to Hatch who didn’t miss this time and sent the ball into the back of the net via the inside of the far post.

At halftime the contest was knotted at 1-1.

Camryn Biegalski replaced Julia Roddar at left back after halftime as both teams tried to wrestle control of the match. By the hour mark the toll of the intensity of the game and fatigue from both teams, having multiple players logging their third hefty batch of competitive minutes in six days, began to set in.

In the 67th minute Kerolin once again got behind the Spirit line and a dangerous sliding tackle from Sam Staab was deemed nothing more than a corner by the referee. On replay Staab definitely caught the back of the the Brazilian’s ankle before contact with the ball. The Courage were rightfully upset by the decision and protested as Kerolin received treatment and eventually was substituted. Prior to the substitution, the Courage got the ball in the net from the resulting corner.

Carson Pickett’s delivery fell in a dangerous area, Diana Ordóñez got her head to the ball first but her contact deflected off Aylmer’s head into the net. During the sequence, Kingsbury attempted a diving stop among a mass of bodies and hit her head on the post coming down. The Spirit keeper was down for several minutes, was checked for a concussion but was ultimately allowed to stay in despite backup keeper Devon Kerr vigorously warming up to take her place.

After that, Ashley Hatch attempted to connect with a high ball and sent her cleats into the torso of Abby Erceg who stayed down injured for a while. Erceg eventually came back on but still in visible pain.

After all that, the scariest moment of the match came after Jordan Baggett absorbed a sliding challenge and awkward fall. Players immediately noticed something was wrong and immediately called for trainers, who then immediately called for the stretcher. Spirit players, sensing urgency for their teammate, help rush the stretcher onto the field from the other end of the field. Baggett was loaded onto the stretcher and was seen talking and smiling as she was rolled to an ambulance en route to the hospital.

The game went on for twelve minutes beyond regulation and ended with the Spirit’s first loss of Kris Ward’s era. However, that was secondary to the brutal final half hour that served as a reminder that, though improvements were made in the league’s first CBA, the NWSL still has a lot to improve regarding player safety.

From the amount of minutes players had to log to ensure the game could be played in one of limited network windows to referees not being able to secure resources for training and development through Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and the NWSL having to rely on inadequate refereeing — players continue to suffer the consequences of decisions made without adequate consideration for their safety.

The NWSL must focus on building a framework that prioritizes player safety, otherwise the potential for awful moments will remain high. Prioritizing safety in decision making ensures that the league won’t be left crossing their fingers in hopes that the spectacle they want isn’t marred by the ramifications of substandard decisions.

Everyone at Black and Red United wishes Jordan Baggett a speedy and full recovery.


Box Score

NWSL Challenge Cup - Semifinal

North Carolina Courage - 2 (Kerolin ‘10, Aylmer ‘70 [OG])

Washington Spirit - 1 (Hatch, ‘35)

Lineups:

Spirit (4231): Aubrey Kingsbury (C); Julia Roddar (Biegalski, 45), Sam Staab, Emily Sonnett, Kelley O’Hara (Goff 74); Dorian Bailey, Taylor Aylmer (Baggett 80, Harding 90+5); Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, Anna Heilferty (Feist 74); Ashley Hatch

Courage (433): Katelyn Rowland; Carson Pickett, Abby Erceg, Kaleigh Kurtz, Merritt Mathias; Malia Berkely, Denise O’Sullivan, Emily Gray (Speck 83); Kerolin (Smith 74), Debinha, Diana Ordóñez (Daniels 84)

Bookings:

Courage - Mathias, 67

Spirit - None