The Washington Spirit couldn’t be facing a tougher assignment than the one that’s in front of them tonight, on the road and on short rest against the North Carolina Courage. North Carolina is in the middle of a season that could be among the most dominant in American pro soccer history, and currently have 50% more points than the second-place Seattle Reign FC. NC’s last three games have been a 4-1 win at Seattle, a 3-0 win on the road against the Orlando Pride (currently in third), and a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Red Stars (currently in fourth).
Is there any hope for the Spirit, who haven’t won in seven straight? Perhaps! Their last trip to North Carolina saw them largely succeed at forcing the Courage out of their normal high tempo, reducing the game to one of few chances either way. NC won 1-0 on an Abby Erceg header from a corner, but Washington saw Mallory Pugh miss a good look on a counter and later had Tori Huster’s shot with the goalkeeper out of position blocked. If the Spirit can dictate the terms of the game again, they have a shot at pulling off a monumental upset...but that’s a gigantic if.
Key player: Estelle Johnson
The Courage have so many talented attackers that they could probably compete for a playoff spot while having to start their second-choice forwards and wingers, so you know the Spirit will be under intense pressure at the back. That means everyone in a defensive role has to produce, but with Johnson being the Spirit’s tallest defender, and their best emergency defender, Washington is going to need a huge game from their captain.
Location: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (Cary, NC)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (4231) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Taylor Smith, Whitney Church, Estelle Johnson, Caprice Dydasco; Rebecca Quinn, Tori Huster; Estefania Banini, Andi Sullivan, Havana Solaun; Ashley Hatch
The Spirit have 18 healthy players, so that sorts the gameday 18. There are reports that Maddie Huster (who did not travel to Orlando, leaving the Spirit carrying two goalkeepers) has signed in Sweden, but according to the Spirit she is still under contract. Whether or not she travels this time, Washington is probably going to carry two ‘keepers, and in Lavelle and Eubanks probably can’t expect more than 30 minutes from each.
On top of all that, Banini is questionable with hamstring issues; she came back from a similar issue on the weekend to play 75 minutes, but it might be an issue of playing back-to-back games. That might mean a start for Lohman or Dougherty Howard instead, and possibly a return to the midfield diamond seen against Chicago.
The full Spirit injury report includes four players who have been out for a while (Pugh, Cali Farquharson, Cheyna Matthews, and Arielle Ship), plus two new additions. Francisca Ordega is out with a concussion, and Tiffany Weimer is out due to a knee cyst.
Projected Courage starting 11: (442) - Katelyn Rowland; Merritt Mathias, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Kaleigh Kurtz; Crystal Dunn, Denise O’Sullivan, McCall Zerboni, Debinha; Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams
The Courage have a suddenly lengthy injury list, with Erceg, Zerboni, Samantha Mewis, and Jaelene Hinkle all listed as questionable. With Mewis, Paul Riley has taken a conservative approach, so expect O’Sullivan to carry on in her spot. Realistically, North Carolina can rest Hinkle with an eye on the rest of the season, so look for Kurtz at left back. If Zerboni ends up in a similar situation, Meredith Speck is the likely replacement. If Riley wants to rest Erceg, he could give a first start to Yuri Kawamura since her June 2017 ACL tear.
Former USWNT winger Heather O’Reilly could also get her first start since returning to the NWSL, which could give Dunn or Debinha a rest.
Referee: Daniel Gutierrez
Available TV: None
What are you drinking?: I’ll be getting home minutes before for this one, but I should have enough time to grab a Slurpee on my way back.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.