After a five-year absence, the Washington Spirit are back in the NWSL playoffs as they host the North Carolina Courage at Audi Field. A stunning late-season burst of form has carried the Spirit — who have not lost in any of the last nine times they took the field — not just into the postseason, but into position to host today’s game. The Courage, who like Washington had their season disrupted by accusations of abuse that forced a coaching change, have gone in a different direction, but they still have the confidence of a team that has won each of the last two NWSL championships.
Key player: Emily Sonnett
The Courage have a recent record (1W-3D-5L) that points to a team that isn’t in good form, and the last goal they scored was also the last goal the Spirit conceded. But anyone that took a look at their last game would have noticed that NC went to Portland and high-pressed the Thorns from the jump. Within the first few minutes, the Courage had a goal narrowly called back for offside and hit the bar, eventually taking 20 shots and looking like a pretty familiar version of themselves.
It seems reasonable to expect NC to be similarly focused on being their true selves from kickoff today, and that means defusing their press. Every Spirit defender and midfielder will be facing a major test, particularly in the early going, but Sonnett’s role as an organizer (not to mention how much she’s on the ball) means she’ll be vital for the entire Spirit side to play around or through NC’s press.
Location: Audi Field (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 5:30pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Paige Nielsen, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Kelley O’Hara; Tori Huster, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez
Bench: Devon Kerr, Karina Rodríguez, Tegan McGrady, Julia Roddar, Saori Takarada, Taylor Aylmer, Anna Heilferty, Kumi Yokoyama, Tara McKeown
The Spirit have no new injuries of any kind, which points to Huster stepping back into the lineup for McKeown. That means making a shift, and what’s not clear is whether the Spirit will play this 433 with Sanchez wide (though the true width will come from O’Hara), or if she’ll be inside as a false 9.
The Spirit have been selecting fullbacks for who best fits an opponent, and they’ve preferred Nielsen at right back against teams playing with two forwards like the Courage do. Nielsen will stay home, often turning the Spirit back four into a temporary three-back, while O’Hara bombs forward on the other side.
Projected North Carolina starting 11: (4222) - Casey Murphy; Merritt Mathias, Kaleigh Kurtz, Abby Erceg, Carson Pickett; Cari Roccaro, Denise O’Sullivan; Amy Rodriguez, Debinha; Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald
With their season hinging on getting at least a draw at Portland last weekend, Sean Nahas kept this lineup on the field for the full 90 minutes without making any sub. With that in mind, and no change on the injury front (meaning that Sam Mewis remains out), it feels safe to say this is the Courage’s starting eleven at the moment. Roccaro has emerged from a season-long battle with multiple other players to partner O’Sullivan, while Rodriguez (having seemingly gotten some rest in a busy October) is likely to stay ahead of Meredith Speck.
Referee: Natalie Simon
Available TV: None
Available streaming: Paramount + (US-based), Twitch (international). If you subscribe to Paramount+ via this link, your friends at B&RU get some cash!
What do we have to say about it?: A lot! The latest Plex Weather features Hatch as a guest and, among other things, touches on this specific game:
️ NEW EPISODE ️@WashSpirit striker & #NWSL Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch (@ash_hatch33) comes on the show to talk goalscoring, her role as a @nwsl_players team rep, and much more!https://t.co/zPkVqr9TA8— Plex Weather (@PlexWeather) November 5, 2021
Here on the site, we have Rodman’s thoughts on her rookie season, and a deep dive into what the team changed about their defensive concepts to spark this excellent late-season run.
What are you drinking?: I’ll be in the building, and it’s November, so hot tea is the way to go here. Bring layers, it’ll be in the mid-40s by the time this game ends.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.
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