The Washington Spirit have been involved in from frustrating games since the beginning of July. Last month, they arguably outplayed their opponents in every game, but picked up just one point and endured three one-goal losses. A feel-good rout of Sky Blue FC was followed by a humbling loss against Orlando, and last week they had to settle for a 2-2 draw despite creating enough chances to score 5 or 6 on Boston. Today, against the league-leading North Carolina Courage, they need all of their mistakes and rotten luck to disappear if they’re going to have any chance of springing an upset.
Key player: Meggie Dougherty Howard
The Courage tend to do get their wins by forcing opponents to defend endlessly, because they’re so good at winning the ball back in the midfield. McCall Zerboni and Samantha Mewis have been a two-woman wrecking crew, and they often make Paul Riley’s preference for various 442 formations look like he’s managed to sneak an extra central midfielder onto the field.
If the Spirit are going to break that pressure and challenge what is probably the best back four in the league, Dougherty Howard, Tori Huster, and the rest of the Washington midfield has to be stellar. For Dougherty Howard, the challenges are numerous: she needs to help retain possession by playing a lot of one-touch soccer, be mentally and physically ready for a constant battle, and still provide the through balls she’s quietly been able to serve up all season (MDH leads the Spirit in key passes on the season with 25).
Location: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (Cary, NC)
Kickoff time: 3:30pm Eastern is when the broadcast starts, and the game will kick around 3:50pm
Projected Spirit starting 11: (442) - Stephanie Labbe; Estelle Johnson, Whitney Church, Shelina Zadorsky, Caprice Dydasco; Havana Solaun, Tori Huster, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Mallory Pugh; Estefania Banini, Arielle Ship
Bench: DiDi Haracic, Kassey Kallman, Alyssa Kleiner, Kristie Mewis, Cheyna Williams, Lindsay Agnew, Cali Farquharson
It seems probable to me that, away from home, the Spirit will be a bit more conservative, and when they go that way they defend out of a 442. The big question is whether Labbe returns after being surprisingly dropped last week in favor of Haracic. Labbe was sensational the last time these teams met, and no matter Jim Gabarra’s choice today, the Spirit will need a huge game from their goalkeeper to have a shot in this one.
Elsewhere, we may see Williams - who has 2 goals in 3 games - step in for Ship up front. Mewis, given her physical nature, may also end up seeing a start due to NC being such a tough team to play against. Finally, we can’t rule out a return of the 352 Gabarra deployed in the opener as well as last year’s NWSL final. In that case, Dydasco and one of Kleiner or Kallman would be the wingbacks, with Banini as an attacking midfielder and Pugh moving up front.
Projected North Carolina starting 11: (442) - Katelyn Rowland; Taylor Smith, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle; Kristen Hamilton, Samantha Mewis, McCall Zerboni, Ashley Hatch; Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams
Riley could also switch to a 4132 as he played in the season opener, with Mewis dropping deeper, Zerboni playing to the left of center, Debinha as an attacking midfielder, and most likely Hatch making way. As listed here, look for Hatch to push up almost as a third forward, with Hamilton pinching in to help out centrally.
Referee: Elvis Osmanovic
Available TV: Lifetime
Available streaming: MyLifetime.com
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What are you drinking?: It’s going to be about 90 tomorrow, so I’m thinking gin and tonic for this one.
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