The Washington Spirit (6W-3D-4L, 4th place) face their toughest challenge of the NWSL season thus far tonight, as they head south to take on the defending champion North Carolina Courage (7W-4D-3L, 2nd). It’s not just that the Courage won the league last year, lost the final the year before that; it’s the history between these teams. In seven meetings, the Spirit have seven losses (scoring just 5 goals in the process). They played a preseason game last year...and that was a loss too.
With Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh away on USWNT duty, the Spirit will have to dig deep and produce a near-perfect performance to break the hex the Courage have on them.
Update 8:55pm: We’re still in a delay. Things got worse!
But, Sahlen’s Stadium has apparently drained quite well, as you can see from this more recent photo:
Update 8:11pm: Things are looking bad!
The official Courage statement is that the next update delay will come at 8:30pm, but with this much standing water and heavy storms in the area for the next couple of hours, it is looking very much like this game might not happen as planned.
Key player: Aubrey Bledsoe
The Courage play a style that creates a ton of shots and scoring chances, so obviously Bledsoe is going to have to produce both a lot of saves, and also a few top-class ones. That’s just life when you head down to NC for a game in this league.
However, Bledsoe’s job goes beyond simply making big saves. Her organizational ability and leadership from the back will be tested as the Courage pile on pressure, and her choices in distribution are going to be huge as well. Washington’s approach has been built around possession this season (they’ve attempted over 300 more passes than anyone else in the NWSL, and have the league’s highest passing accuracy percentage at 79.6%), but North Carolina thrives on making it hard to build out of the back.
Bledsoe’s short passes are going to be contested at times, and her targets will often have someone breathing down their neck. Giving them a pass they can work with, while also mixing in some longer play to make the Courage pay for their high line, might be just as crucial as her saves.
Location: Sahlen’s Stadium (Cary, NC)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (4231) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Amy Harrison; Meggie Dougherty Howard, Andi Sullivan; Cheyna Matthews, Jordan DiBiasi, Chloe Logarzo; Ashley Hatch
Bench: Shae Yanez, McKenzie Berryhill, Dorian Bailey, Elise Kellond-Knight, Bayley Feist, Cali Farquharson, Arielle Ship
The NWSL injury report hadn’t come out as of very late last night, so we’re flying a little bit blind here. Here’s what we know: Lavelle and Pugh are out due to the USWNT victory tour. Mallory Eubanks is still out for the year due to her pregnancy, and Tegan McGrady is probably still out as well due to a persistent quad issue.
If no one else is on the injury report, whenever it comes out, Richie Burke will probably opt for a more defensive outlook than normal due to the Courage’s attacking strength. That likely means a second holding midfielder, so we expect that Dougherty Howard will replace Lavelle in the lineup, while Matthews can slot in for Pugh on the wing.
Projected North Carolina starting 11: (4222) - Stephanie Labbé; Merritt Mathias, Kaleigh Kurtz, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle; Cari Roccaro, Denise O’Sullivan; McCall Zerboni, Debinha; Lynn Williams, Kristen Hamilton
Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jess McDonald, and Samantha Mewis are all away for the victory tour, but Paul Riley isn’t going to abandon his high-press, high-octane playing style. It is possible that he shifts into a diamond rather than the box-shaped midfield (that’s what the Courage used when these teams last met), but most likely they’ll set up like this.
The only remaining questions: Williams was questionable last week and didn’t play, while Zerboni only played 10 minutes. Players like Leah Pruitt and Julia Spetsmark could step in if they can’t go.
Referee: Gustavo Solorio
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington
What are you drinking?: Vienna Lager from Devil’s Backbone is gonna do the trick for me tonight.
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