The Washington Spirit put up a good fight, but once again left Sahlen’s Stadium without anything to show for it after a 1-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage. A controversial 24th minute red card to center back Paige Nielsen forced the Spirit into a defensive posture for much of the game, and while they performed admirably against the defending NWSL champs, a Debinha volley in the 64th minute condemned them to defeat in a game that was moved back a day after heavy storms forced a postponement.
A typical Courage start saw Aubrey Bledsoe put to the test immediately, with a clearance under pressure inside of 30 seconds. Merritt Mathias had a go from long range a minute later, forcing Bledsoe to tip the ball over the bar.
Despite North Carolina’s withering high-press giving them very few entries into the attacking third, Washington determinedly tried to pass their way into the game, playing the possession-oriented soccer they’ve played all season. A poor clearance from Jaelene Hinkle fell to Andi Sullivan in the 21st minute, but her shot from an angle skipped just wide of Stephanie Labbé’s goal.
Just as the Spirit were starting to find their footing, disaster struck. After receiving an advantage call from referee Gustavo Solorio, the Courage pieced together an attack in traffic centrally. Kristen Hamilton’s through ball for Debinha seemed perhaps too long, with Bledsoe racing off her line to claim it. Debinha went tumbling after Paige Nielsen reached towards her, and Solorio opted for a straight red card in the 24th minute, saying that Nielsen had denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Replays seemed to indicate little contact, if any, but Solorio’s decision was made.
The home side very nearly grabbed a lead shortly thereafter, with Hinkle’s cross finding Debinha. Despite facing the wrong way, Debinha’s header attempt skewed towards goal, hitting the foot of the post. Hamilton, the NWSL Player of the Month for July, collected the rebound and fired from close range, but Bledsoe made a big stop, holding the rebound amid several dark blue-clad Courage players.
Washington did well for the rest of the half, keeping the tempo slow and forcing the Courage to be more patient than they’d normally like to play. It wasn’t until first half stoppage time that Bledsoe had any more work, saving a shot from the right before watching another Mathias bid fly safely wide with the last play of the opening period.
Early in the second half, halftime substitute Julia Spetsmark headed just over the bar from a long throw-in as the game settled into a familiar rhythm. The Spirit, playing a 441 with Sullivan having to fill in as a center back, sat very deep, using Cheyna Matthews (who came in for Chloe Logarzo in the first half) as a lone attacking outlet on the counter.
The pressure was piling up though, with a Mathias cross forcing Sullivan into an intervention inside the box in the 57th minute. The ball fell to Debinha in a wonderful spot, but on the turn, the Brazilian swung and missed.
The Spirit’s resistance finally broke in the 64th minute. Hinkle’s early cross to the back post looked like it might run long at first, but Spetsmark kept after it, leaping high to flick it back into the middle. Debinha, arriving late, made no mistake, thumping a volley home from 9 yards.
Washington certainly didn’t just shut up shop, pushing their line higher and foiling several Courage attacks with an offside trap. Ashley Hatch, who was moved out wide for much of the game, ran all the way across to the left wing to cross for Matthews in the 74th minute. The Jamaica international couldn’t reach the ball, but Dorian Bailey’s late arrival only just barely didn’t work out after the rookie took a bump from Hinkle on the way in.
If that was a decent look, the Spirit squandered a golden opportunity in the 79th minute. A slip from Kaleigh Kurtz at the back allowed Hatch to get into the box. Perhaps due to pressure from Abby Erceg, Hatch tried to squeeze a shot past Labbé, but the former Spirit goalkeeper made the save. The ball popped out to Matthews, who unfortunately opted to take a touch to set up her shot. That allowed Labbé to get over just far enough to protect what had been an open net, robbing the Spirit of a stunning equalizer.
Labbé produced another fine save on Matthews in the 85th minute after Washington’s pressure forced another uncharacteristic turnover from the Courage. That appeared to jolt North Carolina to life a bit, with Debinha’s cross from the right missing Spetsmark by inches in the 87th minute. From that point, other than a poor clearance attempt from Kurtz deep into stoppage time nearly became an own goal, the Courage held the Spirit at bay with possession, and the clock ran out on Washington.
Now sitting in 5th place, the Spirit return home next weekend, hosting the Chicago Red Stars in a potentially crucial game for both clubs. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:00pm at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
Highlights will be added when they are made available.
NWSL Regular Season (Game 14)
North Carolina Courage 1 (Debinha 64)
Washington Spirit 0
NC (4321): Stephanie Labbé; Merritt Mathias, Kaleigh Kurtz, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle; Denise O’Sullivan, Cari Roccaro (Meredith Speck 84), McCall Zerboni; Debinha (Heather O’Reilly 92+), Leah Pruitt (Julia Spetsmark 46); Kristen Hamilton
Spirit (4231): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Elise Kellond-Knight; Andi Sullivan (C), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Bayley Feist 69); Dorian Bailey, Jordan DiBiasi, Chloe Logarzo (Cheyna Matthews 35); Ashley Hatch (Crystal Thomas 81)
NC - Spetsmark 94+
Spirit - Nielsen 24 (red)