The Washington Spirit will begin the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup with arguably the most daunting opening assignment they could have gotten, heading south to face the North Carolina Courage. The Spirit have only managed one win against the Courage ever, and since June 16, 2018, no one has gone to Cary and beaten the home side. Missing several stars due to international duty, Washington will have to dig incredibly deep to start the year off with a win.
Key player: Paige Nielsen
International call-ups have hit the Spirit hard (particularly at the back), and on top of that Sam Staab is questionable with a hip injury. That’s a problem against any team, but against the Courage it’s a particular worry. Aubrey Bledsoe has had to stand out against North Carolina in the past, and while that may end up the case today as well, we’re going to focus on reducing the shots coming her way here.
It’s not just about the obvious job of preventing shots, though. Against NC’s high press, Nielsen will have to keep the ball moving in such a way that the Courage are drawn out of their shape, giving the Spirit room to build around and through them. It’s a high-wire act that might not be recognized appropriately — a center back’s passing usually only stands out if they do it badly, after all — but for Washington, it’s fundamental to their success.
Location: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (Cary, NC)
Kickoff time: 3:30pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (3421) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Tegan McGrady; Anna Heilferty, Dorian Bailey, Natalie Jacobs, Julia Roddar; Kumi Yokoyama, Ashley Sanchez; Ashley Hatch
Bench: Devon Kerr, Sydney Schneider, Sam Staab, Camryn Biegalski, Cali Farquharson, Chinyelu Asher, Trinity Rodman
Due to the FIFA window and a handful of injuries, the Spirit have a ton of questions surrounding them. Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, and Andi Sullivan (USWNT), Saori Takarada (Japan), and Mariana Speckmaier (Venezuela) are are all away. The Spirit have bolstered the squad with three national team replacement players in Asher, Biegalski, and Farquharson, and all three may well see minutes off the bench.
On top of that, Averie Collins (torn ACL) is done for the year, and three more players (Staab, Jordan DiBiasi, and Bayley Feist) are listed as questionable. Feist’s injury is fairly recent, and DiBiasi has not joined training at full speed yet, so the “questionable” tag for both is more like a severe doubt. Staab’s hip injury is a new one, and though she did travel with the team, our guess is that Richie Burke either keeps her to a minutes cap, or holds her out to make sure this injury clears up.
That leads to more confusion: would her spot in the back three go to McGrady, or Roddar, or Jacobs? And that doesn’t even get into possibly playing a 433 formation instead of the listed 3421, which is a distinct possibility.
Projected NC Courage starting 11: (4222) - Katelyn Rowland; Merritt Mathias, Ryan Williams, Kaleigh Kurtz, Carson Pickett; Angharad James, Cari Roccaro; Debinha, Hailie Mace; Kristen Hamilton, Jess McDonald
The Courage initially listed captain Abby Erceg as questionable with a back injury, but the game notes sent to media have her down as out for this game. NC’s list of internationals is, just like the Spirit’s, five players long: Lynn Williams and Casey Murphy are with the USWNT, Denise O’Sullivan and Diane Caldwell are with Ireland, and Lindsay Agnew is with Canada.
Still, the Courage can call on Debinha, McDonald, and Hamilton in their attack, and Mace appears to have the edge over former Spirit midfielder Havana Solaun as the fourth in the quartet.
Referee: No referee was announced before publication.
Available TV: None
Available streaming: Paramount+ (USA only), Twitch (international)
Reading material: We have more on the Challenge Cup roster, All for XI has a season preview with Huster that you should check out, and the latest Plex Weather had Bledsoe talking about some of the changes the Spirit have implemented this year.
What are you drinking?: Looking like a big chance of some grapefruit seltzer for this one.
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