The Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage put on a show today, as a national TV audience took in a wild 2-2 NWSL Challenge Cup draw in Cary, NC. Washington got two goals from Ashley Hatch, but needed a penalty kick save from Aubrey Kingsbury to deny Debinha a brace of her own.
With as many as five projected starters — including midfielders Andi Sullivan and Dorian Bailey, as well as center back Sam Staab — unable to take part, Kris Ward fielded an unconventional lineup featuring center back Karina Rodríguez in central midfield. Things only worsened for the Spirit on that front midway through the first half, with Kelley O’Hara being substituted with what was initially reported as hamstring tightness.
Washington nearly fell behind just 72 seconds into the match, as a Courage corner was only glanced out of the middle by Ashley Hatch. The ball fell to Brazilian forward Kerolin, whose curler towards the upper corner was out of Aubrey Kingsbury’s reach, only to smack off the crossbar.
The end-to-end early exchanges continued, as both teams drew a high line of contention and Washington in particular looked to high-press the home side. That pressure eventually paid off in the 15th minute, as Washington capitalized on a huge error from North Carolina. Katelyn Rowland opted to roll the ball out to Denise O’Sullivan, who was just two steps away from Ashley Hatch, who applied immediate pressure. O’Sullivan couldn’t control the ball, leaving Hatch to take possession, pick a corner, and fire past Rowland from 19 yards.
Unfortunately for Washington, the three minutes of stoppage time were just enough for the Courage to win a penalty. Kerolin was tripped up by Emily Sonnett, and referee Eric Tattersall pointed to the spot. Debinha put enough power on her shot from 12 yards to beat Kingsbury, who had guessed the right way in what was a hint of things to come.
The Courage took an aggressive posture coming out of the break that eventually lead to the Courage taking the lead. Amber Brooks’ pass out of the back was short of its intended target, and Malia Berkely sprinted onto the ball. With plenty of space, Berkely hit a thunderbolt from distance that swerved past Kingsbury in the 52nd minute.
The goal seemed to wake the Spirit up. Anna Heilferty seemed sure she had scored in the 58th minute, glancing a cross from the left past Rowland, but Jaelene Daniels cleared the rolling effort off the line. Ashley Sanchez’s driven corner on the hour mark, meanwhile, found both Brooks and Sonnett on the doorstep, but the ball struck Sonnett high on the leg before floating just over the bar.
Washington seemed to be in deep trouble after Kerolin won another penalty, this time as Morgan Goff was whistled despite appearing to get a foot to the ball. Debinha took the spot kick again, but Kingsbury read it all the way, making a 72nd minute save and pushing the ball away from danger.
The penalty kicks kept coming, and just three minutes later it was the Spirit getting their chance. A lovely sequence saw substitute Bayley Feist lobbing a pass in for Rodman. Rodman beat the charging Rowland to the ball before they collided, and Tattersall had little choice but to award another penalty kick.
Ashley Hatch had no trouble from 12 yards, sending Rowland the wrong way for her tournament-leading fifth goal in the Challenge Cup.
Washington, perhaps sensing that they had the momentum, were pushing for a winner. A throw-in in the 85th minute eventually saw Sanchez take possession in the box, but Feist could only guide her pass inside the box over the bar. Rodman then sliced a shot wide just a minute later after Sanchez again did the creative work.
However, that push for goals nearly gave NC a winner of their own, as a jailbreak counter saw Debinha and Taylor Smith both running in behind the entire Spirit defense. Camryn Biegalski made an astounding recovery run from midfield to slide in on Debinha and prevent a goal from the Brazilian superstar, and Goff had to do the same as the ball skipped on to Smith, who was winding up for an open shot from 14 yards.
The Spirit continued to seek a game-winner that would guarantee their place in the Challenge Cup knockout round, but the Courage did just enough to keep them at bay.
With the draw allowing the Courage to win the East, the Spirit will need an unlikely upset win from Angel City over Portland tomorrow if they’re going to advance to the Challenge Cup knockout stages. In the meantime, they open the season with another huge game, hosting OL Reign — a team widely listed with the Spirit as favorites to win it all this season — at Audi Field on May 1, with kickoff set for 5:00pm.
NWSL Challenge Cup - East Group, Game 6
North Carolina Courage 2 (Debinha 49+pen, Berkely 52)
Washington Spirit 2 (Hatch 15, 75pen)
Courage (4222): Katelyn Rowland; Merritt Mathias, Kaleigh Kurtz, Abby Erceg (C), Jaelene Daniels; Malia Berkely (Meredith Speck 80), Denise O’Sullivan; Brianna Pinto (Kiki Pickett 46), Debinha (Emily Gray 90); Taylor Smith, Kerolin (Diana Ordoñez 88)
Spirit (4231): Aubrey Kingsbury (C); Kelley O’Hara (Morgan Goff 27), Emily Sonnett, Amber Brooks, Camryn Biegalski; Julia Roddar, Karina Rodríguez (Bayley Feist 60); Anna Heilferty (Jordan Baggett 80), Ashley Sanchez, Trinity Rodman; Ashley Hatch
Courage - Erceg 37
Spirit - Rodríguez 19