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Despite Labbe’s heroics, Washington Spirit open the NWSL season with a 1-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage

The Spirit were largely outplayed, but nearly snatched a draw in the late going

Spitfire2485 & Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit were on the back foot for much of a 1-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage in the Spirit’s first game of the 2017 NWSL season. McCall Zerboni scored in the 19th minute, and despite some second half chances, the Courage held the Spirit to zero shots on goal. First half injuries to Joanna Lohman and Cheyna Williams aggravated the Spirit’s woes.

To be honest, the Spirit were lucky to keep the score line at 1-0. The Courage registered 23 shots, and without a fantastic performance in goal from Stephanie Labbe, it could have been a blowout. At the other end, Washington saw several shots blocked by defenders, and their best chance of the game was sent wide by Katie Stengel after she had rounded goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo.

Washington held its own in the first few minutes, but saw the visitors seize control after the opening exchanges. The Spirit’s three-back struggled to cope with the Courage’s pace, and North Carolina’s midfield began connecting passes early.

Lohman went down briefly in the first few minutes but played on until the 18th minute, when lingering pain forced her to stay down. North Carolina played on, and Samantha Mewis fed the ball to Makenzy Doniak, who beat Kassey Kallman down the flank. Doniak served a cross to Zerboni, who was unmarked, and the midfielder - normally known for her hard work and ball-winning more than goal-scoring took a touch into space before slotting past the approaching Labbe.

Lohman was treated on the field for what appeared to be a left knee injury before being removed in favor of Line Sigvardsen Jensen in the 22nd minute. After the game, Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra did not comment on Lohman’s injury.

From there, North Carolina dominated for most of the first half. Despite possession numbers being fairly even, the Spirit couldn’t move the ball well and didn’t do much when they had the ball. In contrast, the Courage midfield excelled at shifting the point of attack via Sam Mewis, while newcomer Debinha’s creativity gave the Courage attack another dimension.

Williams went down in the 33rd minute with what appears to be a calf injury. After several minutes of treatment, she was replaced by Francisca Ordega in the 38th minute. The Spirit shifted to a 4-3-3 instead of the 3-4-1-2 the team started with, though that may have simply been down to the Courage’s control of proceedings.

The Spirit hadn’t given up too may scoring chances despite their slow first half, but that changed as North Carolina showed their attacking muscle after the break. Labbe was forced to make a wide variety of saves, both on point-blank shots and on well-placed efforts headed towards the upper corner.

A North Carolina corner kick in the 52nd minute forced Labbe off her line, but Jess McDonald managed to beat her to the ball. McDonald’s floating header hit the top of the crossbar, came back down into the goalmouth, and set off a wild scramble that ended only when Sam Mewis, from a great spot, lashed a shot over the bar.

Labbe made several more saves in the next five minutes including a stop on a hard, close-range shot from Debinha.

Just past the hour mark, though, the Spirit gave a glimpse of what they’re capable of when they play quickly. A combination between Ship, Kristie Mewis, and Tori Huster saw Huster deliver a through ball to Stengel, whose run had fooled Yuri Kawamura. Stengel beat D’Angelo to the ball, rounded the keeper, but rushed her shot, sending the ball wide of an empty net.

In the 67th minute, Havana Solaun replaced Ship. Making her Spirit debut as a right forward, Solaun’s energy and creativity helped the Spirit attack against an increasingly tired North Carolina side. Debinha, in her NWSL debut, continued to pepper Labbe with shots including a long-range shot in the 69th minute that Labbe tipped over the crossbar.

North Carolina’s midfield started to get stretched, and as a result, the Spirit finally started to create chances. In the 72nd minute, they had two good looks: Kristie Mewis fed Ordega a pass in behind Abby Dahlkemper, but from an angle the Nigerian international could only hit the outside netting. Moments later, Stengel’s stepover bought her space against Kawamura, but her 20 yarder flew over the bar.

While the Spirit increased their pressure on the Courage, they best they could manage in the late going were a series of corner kicks and a couple of promising free kicks that North Carolina - a team known for their aerial strength - dealt with comfortably.

At the other end, Labbe robbed Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis, as the Spirit were running out of gas and having to send numbers forward. Despite having three minutes of stoppage time, Washington was largely unable to mount an attack, as the Courage found a last bit of energy in reserve to keep them pinned in their own end.

Next Saturday, the Spirit go on the road to face the Orlando Pride, who will likely have five-time world player of the year Marta in the starting lineup.