The Washington Spirit have shown resiliency throughout a remarkable late-season run, and they did it again, advancing in the NWSL playoffs thanks to a 1-0 extra time win over the North Carolina Courage. Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch pounced for a 113th minute game-winner, giving Washington just their second-ever playoff victory and securing a trip to the semifinals next week, while Aubrey Bledsoe produced eight saves in her third straight shutout.
The early stages saw a wide-open game, with both teams getting high-quality looks. Aubrey Bledsoe had to do well to make a 22nd minute save on Debinha after Merritt Mathias picked her out with a cross to the back post. At the other end, Trinity Rodman’s low cross from the right found Ashley Hatch in a great spot, but the Golden Boot winner was crowded out at the last moment by Courage defenders.
Just as Washington seemed to be taking more control, Bledsoe had to come up with a full-stretch save in the 33rd minute, denying Amy Rodriguez after some excellent work from Debinha to draw Kelley O’Hara out.
Washington came out firing to start the second half. Andi Sullivan’s goal-bound shot was blocked in traffic, while O’Hara’s long-range drive was tipped over the bar by Casey Murphy, who saw it late. The Courage were still a threat though, with Jess McDonald’s lunging shot forcing Bledsoe into a reflex save in the 54th minute.
Debinha, who was looking progressively more of a threat as time wore on, smacked a shot off the post in the 62nd minute as North Carolina reasserted themselves. However, halftime substitute Tori Huster nearly scored a sneaky 71st minute goal, reacting first to a rebound after a free kick only for her shot to glance off a defender and just barely wide.
That chance signaled a flip in momentum, with the Spirit peppering Murphy’s goal in the next few minutes. Tara McKeown came in and made an instant impact, while Dorian Bailey’s 19-yard effort required Murphy to make a tremendous save in the 77th minute.
However, the teeter-totter swung back in favor of the Courage shortly thereafter, with a series of corners causing a worry in front of the Spirit’s goal. The last of these fell to Lynn Williams at the back post, but the USWNT forward was leaning back as she shot, sending the ball mercifully into the stands.
The end-to-end exchanges continued, with Rodman — after two different balls over the top were just barely defused by the Courage — nearly side-footing home a stoppage-time winner only for Murphy to snag the shot.
Extra time was required, where Murphy was almost immediately forced into another top save on Bailey. Kaleigh Kurtz then produced a diving header to block a McKeown shot in the 94th minute as the Courage began to show signs of fatigue. The Spirit thought they’d created the opening they needed when Sullivan’s interception allowed Hatch to slip Huster in behind, but as she approached the ball, Huster appeared to roll her ankle. The chance dissolved, and Huster had to be substituted immediately.
Murphy was under siege, with the Courage making multiple blocks, and then Rodman’s 105th minute blast requiring another full-stretch save. North Carolina passes were being intercepted any time they tried to play out of danger, but Washington was unable to capitalize, often by the narrowest of margins.
However, the Spirit got a scare in the 111th minute, as former Washington player Taylor Smith broke the offside trap and raced in on goal from an angle. Sam Staab’s tackle at the last gasp appeared to do just enough, though, and Smith fired into the outside netting.
That was the wake-up call, and the Spirit replied perfectly. Rodman, fed by Sullivan, manufactured a shot from the right, putting enough power behind it that Murphy couldn’t keep ahold of the ball. Hatch was lurking, and in classic poacher fashion crushed a close-range shot into the top corner in the 113th minute.
From there, the Spirit had to see the game out, and despite the Courage throwing most of their team forward in the late going, Bledsoe was not tested again, allowing Washington to celebrate for one last time at Audi Field this season.
The win, Washington’s second-ever postseason victory, sees the Spirit advance to next weekend’s semifinal round. They’ll head west for their third road trip to Tacoma of 2021, as they take on a star-studded OL Reign side at Cheney Stadium on Sunday, November 14. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00pm Eastern.
Quite the Quarterfinal #WASvNC | @Nationwide pic.twitter.com/41T8eYmbrO— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 8, 2021
NWSL Playoffs - First Round
Washington Spirit 1 (Hatch 113)
North Carolina Courage 0
(after extra time)
Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe; Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady (Julia Roddar 70); Andi Sullivan (C), Dorian Bailey (Paige Nielsen 115), Taylor Aylmer (Tori Huster 46; Anna Heilferty 98); Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman (Saori Takarada 118), Ashley Sanchez (Tara McKeown 70)
Courage (4222): Casey Murphy; Merritt Mathias (Ryan Williams 119), Kaleigh Kurtz, Abby Erceg (C), Carson Pickett; Denise O’Sullivan, Cari Roccaro (Angharad James 105); Debinha, Amy Rodriguez (Meredith Speck 77); Jess McDonald (Taylor Smith 105), Lynn Williams
Spirit - None
Courage - None