The Washington Spirit are flying high, but tonight against the North Carolina Courage they face a team that’s always had their number in the past. Since their move from Rochester, NY, the Courage have beaten the Spirit in all six meetings between the sides. If you incorporate their time as the Western NY Flash into the mix, the last time the Spirit didn’t lose to this club was technically the 2016 NWSL championship...which only happens to be the most tragic finish to a game in Spirit history.
2019 has been all about change for the Spirit, and finally (finally!) getting one over on Paul Riley’s side would be a significant benchmark. It’s also a major moment in this season, as the World Cup players start to trickle back. Washington has been the best team in the league up to now, but powers like the Courage will be expecting themselves to charge back up the standings. Teams like North Carolina don’t just recede into the background. You have to push them aside, and the Spirit could make a big statement if they do so tonight.
Key player: Paige Nielsen
Nielsen is back after a one-week absence, and she’s probably going to have a busy night. The Courage base their attack on a full-throttle speed of play, sprinting through midfield looking for crosses and shots in a hurry. That’s going to mean a lot of defending inside the box and/or on the turn, which is something Nielsen has done well this year. Still, there aren’t any other teams in this league that play like North Carolina, so this will be a new sort of test for her and the entire Spirit defense.
Location: Maureen Hendricks Field at Maryland SoccerPlex (Boyds, MD)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (4312) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Dorian Bailey; Andi Sullivan, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Bayley Feist; Jordan DiBiasi; Arielle Ship, Ashley Hatch
Bench: Shae Yanez, McKenzie Berryhill, Carlin Hudson, Amy Harrison, Cali Farquharson, Crystal Thomas, Cheyna Matthews
Tegan McGrady and Megan Crosson are both out for this one, so Bailey will be at left back, which in turn means another game for Feist to build on a solid first start in the midfield. There are a few other questions: is Matthews ready to step right back in following her return from World Cup duty, or will Ship start up top? How much can Farquharson, who is questionable with a knee injury, give?
Both Amy Harrison and Chloe Logarzo were back from Australia’s World Cup campaign, and both were in training, but it’s unclear whether they’ll play. It’s probably more about the mental side, as recovering from an earlier-than-expected elimination is a big challenge for any player. Given Logarzo’s heavy load of playing time, I think it might be a week before she dresses, but she could also just go right into the starting lineup.
Projected Courage starting 11: (4222) - Samantha Leshnak; Merritt Mathias, Abby Erceg, Kaleigh Kurtz, Jaelene Hinkle; McCall Zerboni, Denise O’Sullivan; Debinha, Julia Spetsmark; Lynn Williams, Leah Pruitt
Paul Riley is dealing with the absence of 4 USWNT players (Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jess McDonald, and Sam Mewis) and is giving former Spirit goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé more time after Canada’s elimination from the World Cup. He’s also missing key midfielder Kristen Hamilton, but on the other hand he gets back two of the best players in the NWSL. Debinha and Erceg are back from France, and it sounds like they’re going right into the lineup.
This could play as a 4231, with Williams and Spetsmark wide, but Riley’s preferred box midfield is more likely.
Referee: Danielle Chesky
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington Plus (use this channel finder if you don’t know where to find NBCSN’s alternate channel)
What are you drinking?: When this kicks off, I’ll probably be opening a bottled water at Audi Field and mourning the conflicting start times that mean I can’t be at the Plex.
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