The Washington Spirit battled bravely, but opened the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup with a 3-2 loss at the North Carolina Courage. Kumi Yokoyama and Trinity Rodman, minutes into her first-ever pro game, scored for the Spirit, but Merritt Mathias’s clever chip early in the second half ended up being the game-winner for the Courage.
Missing five players to national team duty and two more projected starters to injury, Richie Burke fielded an experimental version of the back three his side has been working on during the preseason. A shortage of defenders saw wingbacks Julia Roddar (in her debut for the club) and Tegan McGrady both play as part of the back three.
Normally games between the Spirit and Courage settle into a rhythm, but this game took no time to get flying. Ashley Sanchez had a near miss in the 3rd minute following good combination play by her, Ashley Hatch, and Kumi Yokoyama.
From a goal kick barely a minute later, the Spirit took the lead, with Hatch reading a casually-taken goal kick from Katelyn Rowland, pouncing on Meredith Speck and forcing a turnover. Dorian Bailey controlled the loose ball to pick out Yokoyama, who briefly changed her angle before rolling a shot into the lower corner from 17 yards. The goal marked the first lead the Spirit have ever had against the Courage at Sahlen’s Stadium.
The lead unfortunately didn’t last. Debinha and former Spirit midfielder Havana Solaun exchanged passes in the midfield, allowing Debinha to turn upfield and lob a pass right into Jess McDonald’s stride. McDonald then teed up strike partner Kristen Hamilton, who shot low and across Aubrey Bledsoe, picking out the bottom corner to level the score in the 10th minute.
The back and forth continued. A last-ditch tackle from Tegan McGrady denied Debinha from a promising spot, before Anna Heilferty — in her pro debut — saw a shot glanced barely wide by Rowland after a lovely pass from Yokoyama. At the other end, Debinha pounced on a looping ball as the Spirit hesitated following a half-clearance, and could only thank the Brazilian star for mercifully firing wide from 5 yards out. Just three minutes later, Debinha fired wide again after some good work from Hailie Mace as the Courage began to take more control of the game midway through the very busy first half.
Teams don’t generally get to let the Courage have this many looks before being punished, and North Carolina took the lead in the 28th minute. The home side punished the Spirit’s high line, with Jess McDonald racing in alone after an early through ball caught Washington out. Bledsoe cut down the angle and got a block on McDonald’s low, angled shot, but the Spirit’s luck ran out as the ball had just enough power to bounce over the line.
The game finally settled down around the 30th minute, with the Spirit gaining their bearings in the midfield a bit more, but the open nature of the game continued in the second half. Meredith Speck nearly scored within 20 seconds of the game kicking back off, and then Heilferty’s cross was inches from finding Hatch on the doorstep in the 48th minute.
The Courage then expanded their lead, with Merritt Mathias offering up an extremely clever finish in the 51st minute. Mace played the ball early into space for Mathias, coming up from right back, and the veteran opted to delicately chip the ball over Bledsoe, who had come out to close the angle anticipating a more conventional shot.
Burke looked to change the game up, bringing rookie Trinity Rodman in, and it took just five minutes for the USYNT star to produce a goal on her debut. Natalie Jacobs, from deep in the midfield, was given room by the Courage and made them pay with an inch-perfect ball over the top for Rodman, whose first touch set her up perfectly to drive a cool finish past Rowland on the hour mark.
The chances kept coming, with Bledsoe making two excellent saves in the next four minutes. Both teams were content with a wide-open approach, though heavy legs started to take their toll on both sides in terms of precision in the late stages. Washington made a major push, while NC brought two defenders in for Debinha and McDonald to weather the storm. Unfortunately for Washington, despite winning some promising set pieces, they couldn’t get any closer than a 91st minute curler from Sanchez that flew a yard wide.
The Spirit will look to notch their first win of 2021 this Thursday, when they’ll host expansion club Racing Louisville at Audi Field. That game, which will be played without fans, is set for a 7:00pm Eastern kickoff.
NWSL Challenge Cup - East Division
North Carolina Courage 3 (Hamilton 10, McDonald 28, Mathias 51)
Washington Spirit 2 (Yokoyama 4, Rodman 60)
NC (4222): Katelyn Rowland; Merritt Mathias, Schuyler DeBree, Cari Roccaro, Carson Pickett; Havana Solaun, Meredith Speck; Debinha (Kaleigh Kurtz 96+), Hailie Mace (Rylee Baisden 73); Jess McDonald (C) (Ryan Williams 80), Kristen Hamilton
Spirit (3412): Aubrey Bledsoe (C); Julia Roddar (Camryn Biegalski 68), Paige Nielsen, Tegan McGrady; Tori Huster, Dorian Bailey, Natalie Jacobs, Anna Heilferty; Ashley Sanchez; Ashley Hatch (Chinyelu Asher 88), Kumi Yokoyama (Trinity Rodman 55)
NC - Mathias 97+
Spirit - Jacobs 63