The Washington Spirit did exactly what they set out to do in their NWSL Challenge Cup opener, playing stylish soccer and getting a win. Tonight, the task is more difficult, as they take on the North Carolina Courage in a highly anticipated clash between the two-time champions and an exciting young Spirit side that has designs on taking over as the league’s top dog.
Key player: Aubrey Bledsoe
The Spirit won the last meeting between these teams, but here’s how good North Carolina is: they’ve won every other game they’ve played in since August 24 of last year, including running up an 8-1 total scoreline in two playoff games last year. They’ve been shut out two times in the last 100 weeks, and one of those was facing the world all-star team that is Olympique Lyon (who were lucky to keep that zero). They score on everyone, and they usually score more than once.
That brings us to Bledsoe, who played one of the best games of her career in last year’s 2-1 Spirit win. Washington, to be frank, got lucky they came in at halftime down 1-0 and not 4-0. It required the post and crossbar to help out, but it also required one of their best players being at her absolute ceiling. That’s life against the Courage: anything less than your best, and you’re going to lose.
So while we’re highlighting Bledsoe, who will probably be very busy for 90 minutes, apply that to everyone that gets into this game. There’s no room for B+ performances against North Carolina.
Location: Zions Bank Stadium (Herriman, UT)
Kickoff time: 10:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (4312) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Meggie Dougherty Howard, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Rose Lavelle; Ashley Hatch, Bayley Feist
Bench: Devon Kerr, Katie Lund, Natalie Jacobs, Brooke Hendrix, Kaiya McCullough, Jessie Scarpa, Jaye Boissiere, Jordan DiBiasi, Meghan McCool, Kumi Yokoyama, Ashley Sanchez, Averie Collins, Katie McClure
The Spirit went to an unorthodox (think: Hatch playing as the no. 10) 4231 to start last year’s late-season win over the Courage, but after being overrun during the first half, they changed it at halftime for a diamond. Expect that to be the set-up, because going 4v4 in central midfield against NC is critical.
It’s reasonable to expect some rotation for this game: The short turnarounds, the turf, the desert heat (temperatures are forecast to be in the 80s when this kicks off), and the nature of the preliminary rounds all point in that direction. So, here’s our guess on some moves. Dougherty Howard, Bailey, and Feist have all come up in pre-tournament talk from Richie Burke, so look for them to all get starts. We could also see rotation at the fullback positions, though both only went 66 minutes in the opener rather than the full 90.
Burke will be without two players: Jenna Hellstrom suffered a knock yesterday and will not dress, while Crystal Thomas remains out with a quad injury. He told media yesterday that Jaye Boissiere, who wasn’t in uniform for the opener, will be in uniform and is likely to get some minutes.
Expect minimal rotation from Paul Riley, who maintains the highest fitness standards in the league and often plays through quick turnaround without rotating at all. We might see Addisyn Merrick remain a starter at right back, and we might see Kristen Hamilton start ahead of Mace up front. If Riley really wants to rotate, he might opt to give Debinha (90 minutes against Portland) a rest in favor of Lauren Milliet, but my guess is that we won’t see wider rotation until their next game.
Referee: Lukasz Szpala
Available TV: None live. CBS Sports Network has the game listed to be broadcast on tape delay at 10am tomorrow morning.
What do we have to say about it?: Check out the latest episode of Plex Weather, which sets the table for this game before getting into a really good conversation with McGrady on a range of subjects:
We have achieved the astounding feat of producing 2 episodes of Plex Weather! Today, we talked about #CatchTheSpirit's win over Chicago before our first guest ever @teganmcgrady9 called in from Utah https://t.co/EB1OgiS1l1— Plex Weather (@PlexWeather) July 1, 2020
We’ve also got this great piece from André Carlisle on Lavelle putting in work towards being anti-racist, and a preview of what we expected out of NC before the tournament that holds up now that we’ve seen them.
What are you drinking?: Very cold grapefruit seltzer. It’s super humid, gotta stay hydrated.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.