The Washington Spirit have been aiming to take down the North Carolina Courage, but learned just how difficult that is going to be in a 2-0 NWSL Challenge Cup defeat. Lynn Williams struck twice in a ten-minute span in the second half as the Spirit, showing some fatigue after opening the tournament with a win last weekend, struggled to keep up after halftime.
Expectations of a high-quality game were in place coming in, and both teams started the game at a furious pace. Debinha’s through balls to McKenzie Meehan gave the Spirit trouble twice within the first five minutes, and the Brazilian international also thumped the post with a shot from the left side in the 4th minute. At the other end, Andi Sullivan drew a diving save out of Stephanie Labbé in the 3rd minute from long range after Rose Lavelle had broken through the midfield.
After some intense pressure in the Spirit half, a rare push forward for Washington saw them strike the post as well in the 23rd minute, as Dorian Bailey and Bayley Feist — both rotated into the starting lineup for this game — combined on the left side.
Still, the game took on an unsurprising rhythm: the Spirit had the large majority of the possession, but NC’s relentless pressure and team shape restricted Washington to having the ball in their own end or out on the touchline.
Courage head coach Paul Riley turned to his (loaded) bench during the break, bringing in USWNT regulars Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis along with normal starter Denise O’Sullivan, and the improved lineup took a quick lead to start the second half. An innocent enough ball up the wing turned dangerous due to Lynn Williams’ speed, and when Sam Staab’s attempt to slide in and clear it back upfield saw the ball bobble up off her leg, Williams pounced. The Courage striker raced away into space before cutting inside to fire past Aubrey Bledsoe from 8 yards out, making it 1-0 in the 50th minute.
Just as the Spirit started to regain their footing, the Courage struck again ten minutes later. Debinha spotted a seam and burst between Staab and Tegan McGrady, before pinging a cross into the goalmouth. Williams did the job again, acrobatically reaching out to get just enough of a toe onto the service to steer it into the lower corner.
Richie Burke made changes to freshen his team up, including a switch into a 433 for a while, but the Courage were in control. Two late chances for substitute Hailie Mace went awry, while Washington’s best look going the other way came from rookie Katie McClure, who made her pro debut in the 83rd minute. Natalie Jacobs joined McClure in making her first pro appearance, while Jaye Boissiere made her first appearance in a Spirit shirt.
The changes may have been meaningful minutes for young players, but ultimately they didn’t spur an unlikely comeback, as the Spirit had simply run out of gas due to North Carolina’s speed of play.
The Spirit will look to get back on track this Sunday, when they take on Portland Thorns FC at 10:00pm.
NWSL Challenge Cup - Preliminary Round
North Carolina Courage 2 (L. Williams 50, 61)
Washington Spirit 0
Courage (4222): Stephanie Labbé; Addisyn Merrick, Kaleigh Kurtz, Abby Erceg (C), Jaelene Daniels; Meredith Speck (Denise O’Sullivan 46), Cari Roccaro (Sam Mewis 46); Lauren Milliet (Kristen Hamilton 68), Debinha; McKenzie Meehan (Crystal Dunn 46), Lynn Williams (Hailie Mace 82)
Spirit (4312): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster (Natalie Jacobs 83), Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Andi Sullivan (C) (Jaye Boissiere 71), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Jordan DiBiasi 60), Dorian Bailey; Rose Lavelle (Ashley Sanchez 71); Bayley Feist, Ashley Hatch (Katie McClure 83)
Courage - None
Spirit - None