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Penalty kick heartbreak for Washington Spirit after NWSL Challenge Cup elimination at the hands of Sky Blue FC

The Spirit had their chances, but Sky Blue was able to see their way through penalties after a scoreless draw in regulation

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinal - Washington Spirit v Sky Blue FC Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

A promising NWSL Challenge Cup ended early for the Washington Spirit, who were unable to find their way past Sky Blue FC in a tactically engrossing quarterfinal. With the match finishing scoreless, Sky Blue won the penalty kick tiebreaker after Kailen Sheridan saved Bayley Feist’s attempt in the fifth round of the shootout.

Sky Blue had marginally the better start, getting to the endline on both flanks to force the Spirit to do some defending in the goalmouth. However, Washington offered some through balls to Ashley Hatch that also looked threatening, and after being a bit unsettled in the first 10 minutes, the Spirit began piling up possession as they are built to do.

Late in the first half, Spirit rookie Ashley Sanchez had two great looks at goal. The first came after a typically flowing Washington move that ended with Tori Huster picking out Sanchez with a cross from deep on the right wing. Sanchez threw herself at the ball, glancing a diving header towards the bottom corner, only for Kailen Sheridan to claw it away with a wonderful save.

Just as first half stoppage time began, Sanchez used a pair of shoulder fakes to open up a gap inside the box. Earlier in the tournament, she opted to continue to dribble in these moments; today she was more decisive, going to goal at just the right moment, but her shot was right into Sheridan’s arms.

Early in the second half, the Spirit carved out another good look, only to be denied by some bad luck. Kumi Yokoyama and Huster combined to find Ashley Hatch, who laid the ball back to Yokoyama. With no room to take a touch, Yokoyama unleashed a shot from 15 yards that cracked off the crossbar, and though Sanchez managed to prod the rebound back into the middle, Natalie Jacobs — in the lineup after Andi Sullivan’s tournament-ending knee injury — couldn’t get enough power onto her effort to beat Sheridan.

Richie Burke wasn’t able to deploy Rose Lavelle as a starter, but just as his side was exerting more control on the game, he brought her (along with forward Crystal Thomas, who was kept out of prior games due to a knock) just after the hour mark. However, the next chances of the game fell to Sky Blue, who needed a last-ditch Bayley Feist challenge and a glaring miss from Ifeoma Onumonu to escape unscathed after two crosses in about 90 seconds from Paige Monaghan.

Perhaps stung by that last miss, the Spirit carved out a great look of their own in the 74th minute. Huster got forward to support possession, but found a seam to make a run into the box in pursuit of a cross from Thomas. That didn’t pan out, but Feist’s follow-up shot was blocked right into the Spirit veteran’s path. From the penalty spot, Huster set herself to shoot, but Sheridan was so quick off her line that the angle was gone just as Huster went to goal.

The fatigue of a demanding tournament began to show, with both teams not quite able to put a move together to score a crucial goal. Sky Blue caused chaos with a 90th minute corner, but Bledsoe emerged from a crowd to block a close-range shot from former Spirit defender Estelle Johnson at the last second.

That was enough to ensure penalty kicks. After the first two rounds saw excellent attempts from both teams, the Spirit got an advantage after Bledsoe saved Domi Richardson’s shot in the third round. However, Sam Staab followed up by hitting the crossbar, and after both sides exchanged goals in the fourth round, Sky Blue went up 4-3 on Elizabeth Eddy’s successful conversion. With the game on the line, Sheridan ended the Spirit’s hopes, diving to her left to stop Feist’s bid in the final round.

Box Score

NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinals
Washington Spirit
Sky Blue FC

Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe (C); Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Dorian Bailey, Natalie Jacobs (Rose Lavelle 62), Bayley Feist; Kumi Yokoyama (Crystal Thomas 62), Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez (Averie Collins 78)

NJ (4141): Kailen Sheridan; Midge Purce (Sabrina Flores 62), Gina Lewandowski, Estelle Johnson, Imani Dorsey (Erica Skroski 78); Sarah Woldmoe (C); Paige Monaghan (Elizabeth Eddy 78), McCall Zerboni, Jennifer Cudjoe (Domi Richardson 78), Nahomi Kawasumi; Ifeoma Onumonu (Evelyne Viens 87)

Spirit - None
NJ - Johnson 18, Viens 92+

Spirit - Lavelle (Goal), Hatch (Goal), Staab (crossbar), Thomas (Goal), Feist (saved)
NJ - Woldmoe (Goal), Kawasumi (Goal), Richardson (saved), Zerboni (Goal), Eddy (Goal)