With their playoff hopes on the line, the Washington Spirit defeated the North Carolina Courage tonight before a sold out Maryland SoccerPlex crowd of 5,200. Late goals from USWNT stars Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle sparked a wild comeback for Washington, who had trailed due to a Lynn Williams goal just before halftime. It marked the first time the Spirit had ever avoided defeat against a powerhouse Courage side.
As is their custom, the Courage started the game by putting the Spirit — facing their third game in a week — under immediate pressure. North Carolina won a corner within the first 20 seconds, and captain Abby Erceg saw her header downward deflect against the post in the 3rd minute. That would become a recurring theme on the night.
Paige Nielsen did brilliantly to keep the scores level in the 32nd minute, as Heather O’Reilly’s cross created danger in the penalty area. Bledsoe caught the ball initially, but couldn’t hold onto it as she hit the ground under pressure from Crystal Dunn. The loose ball rolled to Debinha, who calmly chipped the ball towards the empty net, but Nielsen somehow contorted herself to scoop the ball away at the last moment.
Jess McDonald’s cross from the right was inch-perfect for Lynn Williams in the 38th minute, but Bledsoe’s brave challenge prevented NC’s top scorer from burying her shot. Dunn sprinted onto the rebound, but under pressure from Nielsen, she could only fire over the bar.
Washington was lucky to stay level on the stroke of halftime, as O’Reilly got into the box before firing a cross that picked out McDonald, only for one of the NWSL’s best attackers to head the ball over the bar from close range.
Just when it appeared that they’d survived, the Spirit were caught on a counter in the second minute of first-half stoppage time. The move didn’t appear particularly dangerous at first, but McDonald drifted out to the touchline before crossing, and no one from Washington detected the late-arriving run from Williams, who tapped the ball past Bledsoe from right on the doorstep.
Richie Burke switched his team’s formation at halftime, bringing Chloe Logarzo in for Meggie Dougherty Howard and moving into a diamond 442. While Washington looked more solid and saw more of the ball, it was still Bledsoe having to make the first save after play resumed. Williams absolutely crushed her 20-yard shot, but Bledsoe was just quick enough to tip the ball over the bar.
A scuffed shot attempt from Williams ended up becoming a great look for Dunn, only for Bledsoe to get just enough of a hand to it to guide the ball onto the crossbar in the 63rd minute. After initially gaining some traction, the Spirit found themselves back under immense pressure as the Courage figured out the new look on the fly.
Dunn made it three shots for NC that struck the frame of the goal in the 67th minute, taking a pass from O’Reilly and going to goal, only to be denied by Bledsoe’s right-hand post.
The Spirit’s good fortune ended up paying off as they equalized in the 75th minute. Substitutes Logarzo and Bayley Feist combined in a tight space just outside the box to open the Courage defense up, and from a narrow angle Mal Pugh fired a shot that Debinha could only deflect, leaving Steph Labbé with no chance of a save on what was the Spirit’s first shot on goal of the night.
Washington was suddenly full of energy, with Pugh going close again moments after the goal, and Feist trying a clever backheel that floated just wide with Labbé flat-footed. Ashley Hatch, playing her third game in a week, popped up at the other end to make a critical tackle on Jaelene Hinkle as well, as Washington dug in trying to get a needed win.
The Courage’s battle with the posts continued in the 81st minute, with Erceg clipping the crossbar with a header from a corner.
Still, the game was going the Spirit’s way, and they took a stunning lead in the 84th minute. Lavelle ended up on the ball outside the box after a pass from Arielle Ship, but initially looked for a passing option. With no one available, Lavelle danced on the ball, fooling USWNT teammate Abby Dahlkemper before picking out the bottom corner with a pinpoint shot. The goal, Lavelle’s first in a Spirit uniform, marked just the third lead the Spirit had ever taken on NC, who had won every previous meeting between the teams.
The Courage were floored, and the Spirit managed to fairly comfortably play out the game’s final 10+ minutes without having any further worries, upending a long history of NC somehow finding a way to win games against the Spirit.
The victory kept Washington’s slim playoff hopes alive, with the team needing some help tomorrow from the Portland Thorns as well as wins in their last two outings. Washington heads on the road to face the Orlando Pride next Saturday, October 5, in a game that had been postponed due to Hurricane Dorian.
NWSL Regular Season (Game 22)
Washington Spirit 2 (Pugh 75, Lavelle 84)
North Carolina Courage 1 (Williams 47+)
Spirit (4231): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Dorian Bailey; Andi Sullivan (C), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Chloe Logarzo 46); Mal Pugh, Ashley Hatch (Arielle Ship 82), Rose Lavelle; Cheyna Matthews (Bayley Feist 66)
NC (4222): Steph Labbé; Heather O’Reilly, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg (C), Jaelene Hinkle; Denise O’Sullivan, McCall Zerboni (Julia Spetsmark 88); Crystal Dunn, Debinha; Jess McDonald (McKenzie Meehan 74), Lynn Williams
Spirit - Huster 56, Matthews 59
NC - Erceg 86