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Spirit can’t overcome slow start in 2-1 loss to NC Courage

Crystal Thomas scored her first career NWSL goal, but the Spirit took too long to get going on Saturday night.

Kelley Piper

The Washington Spirit’s seven-game undefeated streak came to an end on Saturday night, with the North Carolina Courage pulling off a 2-1 victory at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Debinha and Leah Pruitt found the back of the net for the visitors, while Crystal Thomas scored her first goal in NWSL in a late effort for the Spirit.

Saturday’s match was the first following World Cup exits for several international players. Australians Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison started for the Spirit, while Jamaica’s Cheyna Matthews came in off the bench. Brazil’s Debinha started and starred for the Courage, but New Zealand defender Abby Erceg picked up a calf strain in warmups and was a late scratch.

Erceg’s injury caused a massive lineup shift for the Courage. Defensive midfielder Cari Roccaro shifted to center back, right back Merritt Matthias moved to midfield, and Ryan Williams entered the lineup at right back.

Those changes didn’t appear to damage the Courage’s chemistry at all, with the visitors dominating throughout the first half. Matthias had a rocket saved by Aubrey Bledsoe in the first minute, and Lynn Williams shot just wide on a big chance just one minute later.

The Spirit did well to prevent the Courage from turning their high pressure and possession into chances until late in first half stoppage time, when Samantha Staab tripped Debinha in the box, and the referee gave a penalty. Bledsoe made a superb stop on Debinha’s spot kick, but couldn’t do anything to keep out the rebound.

Dorian Bailey had an excellent opportunity to equalize just two minutes into the second half, but couldn’t take her opportunity. Ashley Hatch set her up with a perfectly timed pass into space, setting up a one-on-one with Katelyn Rowland, but Bailey shot straight at the Courage keeper. A minute later, Jordan DiBiasi hit an impressive shot from 30 yards out, but Rowland was able to tip it over the crossbar.

The Courage doubled their lead in the 52nd minute after an error by Harrison. She was unable to control a pass and was easily dispossessed by Williams, who slid the ball over to Pruitt for a comfortable finish from 12 yards out.

But around the hour mark, things changed, with Cheyna Matthews and Bayley Feist entering the game to replace Harrison and Meggie Dougherty-Howard. Those players quickly turned the match in the Spirit’s favor.

Hatch set up a pair of chances in the 67th minute, first playing Matthews in behind the Courage defense, but Roccaro recovered well to prevent the Spirit forward from getting off a good shot. Seconds later, Hatch played a square ball into the center of the box for DiBiasi, but the Carolina defenders were once again able to get in front of the ball before it even reached their goalkeeper.

The Spirit’s goal came in the 82nd minute, with two substitutes combining. Feist knocked down a corner to set up Crystal Thomas, who had entered for Logarzo, to head her first career NWSL goal into the back of the net.

But that only turned out to be a consolation goal. While the Spirit kept pressure on the Carolina defense for the rest of the match, they couldn’t find an equalizer.

“We knew they were going to high press us, but we still came out of the gate slow and you can’t do that,” Spirit captain Andi Sullivan said after the match. “It took us until the second half to start playing our game. We knew we could do that from the start, so we just wasted a lot of time in those first 60 minutes. It took our subs off the bench to solve their press and break them down.”

Despite the loss, Thomas was excited to get her first goal for the club. She had previously made one appearance for the Spirit in 2017 before heading overseas, where she played in Norway and Iceland, before re-signing with the Spirit this season.

“I learned a ton when I was over there,” Thomas says. “I met a lot of great players who helped me expand my game and learn how to be a professional. To be able to come back, play for the Sprit and make an impact is fantastic. I’m going to keep working and fighting and we’re going to get more wins.”

This Spirit loss tightens up the playoff race considerably. They now sit in second place on 19 points, while the Courage move up to fifth, with 16 points. The top four teams in NWSL make the playoffs.

But it’s clear that Courage manager Paul Riley expects both teams to finish in those top four spots. “They’re much improved, they’re much quicker than they were last year,” Riley says of the Spirit. “I’ve watched all the video tape, I’ve watched them 20 times this week, and this is the best team in the league right now.”