The Washington Spirit’s misfortunes continued tonight, as they fell 2-0 on the road against the NWSL-leading North Carolina Courage. Despite managing to slow down the rampant Courage attack for much of the game, the Spirit suffered unlucky bounces on both Debinha’s 12th minute opening goal and Jess McDonald’s 60th minute strike, and couldn’t muster enough going forward to recover.
With few healthy options, head coach Jim Gabarra made just one change despite facing a quick turnaround after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Orlando Pride. Francisca Ordega, who picked up a concussion in the first minute on the weekend, was replaced by Meggie Dougherty Howard. However, Gabarra did make a major change to his formation, moving to a 352 with Rebecca Quinn, Whitney Church, and Estelle Johnson making up the back three while Estefania Banini moved up as a withdrawn forward.
The formation switch slowed North Carolina’s vaunted attack in the early moments, but Washington was caught out by a simple long ball in the 12th minute. Just as Quinn stepped back on the field after leaving it to change into different shoes, McCall Zerboni found enough space to play an inch-perfect long ball to Debinha, who made her run into the space Quinn hadn’t had time to return to. The Brazilian dished off to Lynn Williams, who hesitated before sliding a pass that cut out goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, took an unlucky bounce off of Church, and fell right to Debinha for the easiest of tap-ins.
Beyond that early chance, though, the Spirit’s gameplan of slowing the game down and crowding the midfield was effective in frustrating the notoriously high-octane Courage. Aside from a couple of shots from distance, North Carolina didn’t get another real look until the 30th minute, when a deep cross from Merritt Mathias soared towards both Williams and McDonald. Williams glanced the ball past Bledsoe and in, but the Spirit stepped up at the right moment as the assistant referee flagging both players offside.
Washington’s tactics, while slowing the home side down, made it difficult to do much going forward, and the Spirit’s only first half look was a low-angle effort from Taylor Smith in the 8th minute.
North Carolina came out aggressively to start the second half, with Crystal Dunn forcing a block before Williams fired just over the bar. Washington had a response though, with Tori Huster heading Church’s corner kick just over the bar in the 49th minute and then followed up with a spell of possession that ended with Smith’s cross being cleared. Four minutes later, Dougherty Howard played Caprice Dydasco in behind Denise O’Sullivan, with O’Sullivan pulling her back and picking up a booking.
The Courage’s best attacks came in the rare moments when they could go over the top, and that method seemed sure to create a second goal in the 55th minute. Mathias served a perfect ball in from midfield, drawing Bledsoe off her line. Williams raced onto it first though, touching it away from Bledsoe and leaving herself with an empty net to shoot at. Williams had to go wide with her touch though, and her shot from near the endline gave Bledsoe just barely enough time to dive back and make a stunning save.
Despite that, Washington was starting to grow into the game, only for a gut-punch of a goal to go against them in the 60th minute. Estelle Johnson’s pass was picked off by Dunn, and suddenly the Spirit were looking at a world-class player on the ball in acres of space, running at the defense. Dunn shuttled the ball right to McDonald, who cut inside and fired a left-footer towards goal. Johnson dove at full stretch to block the shot, only for it to glance off her shin and arc up and over Bledsoe, tucking into the upper corner.
After a flurry of subs from both teams, including Rose Lavelle and Havana Solaun coming in for Banini and Dougherty Howard respectively, the Courage nearly made it 3-0. Debinha’s surging run up the middle drew three Spirit players, giving her the room to slip a pass in behind the defense for North Carolina sub Kristen Hamilton. However, Bledsoe had a good read on the play, charging off her line to close the angle and block Hamilton’s shot.
Gabarra’s substitutions also included some tweaks to the formation, included pushing Solaun up higher than Banini had played as the second forward, and Washington’s possession picked up in terms of tempo. With Lavelle (still coming back from a long-term hamstring injury) looking sharper than she had in previous games, Washington saw some moments where they were able to confidently knock the ball around.
However, with the Courage up 2-0 and content to hold possession of their own on a muggy night in Cary, chances were hard to come by. Lavelle did pry the North Carolina defense open with a clever 82nd minute pass to Ashley Hatch, but Hatch’s blast was denied by Katelyn Rowland. At the other end, after a smart pass from the Courage left found Williams wide open on the right, Johnson made a 40 yard run to recover and make a lunging block, with the ball going wide by inches.
With the loss, the Spirit fall to 2W-4D-11L on the season. They’ll have ten days off to regroup and get healthy before hosting the Houston Dash on July 21 at 7:00pm at the Maryland SoccerPlex.