BOYDS – High on their positive momentum and rejuvenated by three of their World Cup players returning to the squad, the Washington Spirit were on an upswing coming into their June 29 contest against the reigning National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Champions, the North Carolina Courage.
However, the Spirit’s possession-based offense was stifled while their defense could not stop the Courage’s attacking press. The visitors took advantage, capitalizing on key mistakes to score and defeat Washington 2-0 in front of 3,481 spectators at Maureen Hendricks Field at the Maryland SoccerPlex. The result ends Washington’s club-record seven-game unbeaten streak, which includes four wins.
“I give my players a lot of credit; this is a tough place to play,” North Carolina Head Coach Paul Riley said. “(Washington) is the best team for me. I’ve watched all the videos; I’ve watched them 20 times this week, and this is the best team in the league.”
According to midfielder and team captain Andi Sullivan, the previous results – two draws – showed cracks in the Spirit’s offense. The problem, according to Sullivan, was the lack of finishing off scoring opportunities with goals.
“The last three games after (the World Cup break), we have been sloppy in the final third,” Sullivan said.
After an hour delay due to lightning in the area, the game commenced with the visiting Courage pressing forward in attack. The Courage fired shots early towards Aubrey Bledsoe’s goal, forcing the Spirit goalkeeper to make five saves in the opening 20 minutes.
Washington attempted to respond back to North Carolina’s offensive success with an opportunity of their own in the 13th minute. Defender Paige Nielsen fired off a volley from inside the penalty area at the Courage goal. However, the shot sailed wide from the left goal post, keeping the game scoreless.
Washington began to slow down North Carolina’s opportunities with the return of two of the three World Cup players, defender Amy Harrison and midfielder Chloe Logarzo from Australia. Striker Ashley Hatch opened up a Spirit opportunity when she danced around three defenders before sliding in a pass to a running Jordan DiBiasi.
The midfielder’s attempted pass was deflected by two Courage defenders but landed in front of Logarzo. She quickly attempted a shot on goal but it was saved by goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland.
A late tackle by defender Sam Staab in the penalty area forced the game referee to call a penalty kick moments before halftime. The Courage’s Debinha fired a low shot but the attempt was saved by Bledsoe. However, the Brazilian striker recovered the rebound and slotted her second opportunity in the net for North Carolina.
“We came out slow out of the gates, and you can’t do that,” Sullivan said. “It really took until after the second half for us to play our game, but we knew we can do that from the start. We wasted our time, and it took us the first 45-to-60 minutes. It really took our subs off the bench to really break them, so I am a little disappointed on how long that took for us.”
Coming out of the intermission, the Spirit pressed their own attack toward the Courage. First, Hatch delivered a low-driven pass past the North Carolina defense to striker Diorian Bailey for a one-on-one opportunity. The former North Carolina Tar Heel star fired a direct shot that was quickly stopped by Rowland.
Moments later, Hatch fired a long-range shot heading to the top-right corner of the goal net. Rowland would once again come up big with a one-handed save to keep the Courage in the lead.
In the 53rd minute, North Carolina capitalized on a mistake in Washington’s defense to score their second goal. Harrison was unable to control a pass from Bledsoe, allowing enough time for striker Lynn Williams to steal the loose ball and run inside the Spirit’s penalty area. Williams sent a quick pass to fellow striker Leah Pruitt for the Courage’s second talley of the night.
Washington finally got on the scoresheet in the 83rd minute, when a thrown-in header play bounced in front of forward Crystal Thomas. She connected with a header that ricocheted into the right side of the net for the former Georgetown University player’s first professional goal.
“Before the play, one of my teammates reminded me to make my run…and I put it away, which felt good,” Thomas said jokingly. “I just knew I had to get on the end of it.”
Despite Thomas’s header goal, the Spirit could not find another quality opportunity on goal to tie the game, resulting in their first loss since April 20.
Washington will have time to clean up their mistakes before they play at Orlando on July 6.
“We want to get three points,” Sullivan said. “That’s what we wanted tonight, and that is what we want every game… To prep for Orlando, we are going to have to (improve on scoring opportunities). Just the final pass, taking some gambles with some shots and really testing their backs and not waiting for the end of the game to do so. I think that will be a focus for training this week.”