Too Little, Too Late for Washington Spirit in First Loss Since April

The inaugural Pride Match at the Maryland SoccerPlex on June 22 resulted in a draw between the Houston Dash and the Washington Spirit. Pictured here, Ashley Hatch fires on goal. Photo | Phil Fabrizio, PhotoLoaf

The inaugural Pride Match at the Maryland SoccerPlex on June 22 resulted in a draw between the Houston Dash and the Washington Spirit. Pictured here, Ashley Hatch fires on goal.
Photo | Phil Fabrizio, PhotoLoaf

Despite a late push, the Washington Spirit’s comeback fell just short in a 2-1 loss to the defending National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) champion North Carolina Courage on June 29 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds. With its first defeat since April 20—and first loss at home in 2019—Washington dropped to second place in the NWSL standings, one point behind Portland Thorns FC.

“(Washington) is the best team in the league for me,” North Carolina Coach Paul Riley said. “They’re very, very good—and they showed again tonight, in patches, how good they are.”

Unfortunately for Washington, it took about 60 minutes for the team to hit its stride. And with their Brazilian star midfielder, Debinha, back from the World Cup, the Courage were in attack mode from the starting whistle. North Carolina rattled off five shots within the first 10 minutes of play, which had been delayed one hour due to lightning. The majority of the Courage’s 18 shots—seven of which were on goal—came in the first half.

Washington nearly escaped the first half unscathed, until Debinha was awarded a penalty kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Spirit goalie Aubrey Bledsoe, who Riley said is “maybe the best keeper in the country right now,” made a remarkable diving save on Debinha’s initial kick, but the deflection landed at the feet of a charging Debinha, who sent it far post.

Spirit forward Ashley Hatch nearly netted her fourth goal of the season to tie the game at 1-1 in the 48th minute, firing a long shot on target that Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland was able to punch over the crossbar. But North Carolina doubled its lead in the 53rd minute when Lynn Williams intercepted a pass in Washington’s defensive third and found Leah Pruitt virtually alone in the box. Pruitt settled the ball quickly and launched a shot into the upper left corner of the net.

“We came out slow at the gates and you can’t do that,” said Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan. “It took us until the second half
to play our game; we wasted a lot of time.”

Forward Cheyna Matthews, who recently returned from representing Jamaica in its first trip to the World Cup, came off the bench to give Washington a spark in the 57th minute. The Spirit controlled play for much of the remainder of the game and made several runs toward the goal, including Matthews’ shot in the 70th minute that rolled barely wide of the frame. Matthews had another close chance two minutes later, but it was forward Crystal Thomas, who entered the game in the 67th minute, who cut North Carolina’s lead in half with a header inside the left post.

“We started creating more chances on goal, connecting passes better and creating more opportunities,” Sullivan said. “You
could feel the tide shift, you could feel the energy in the stadium change.”

The Spirit proceeded to test the Courage defense until the final whistle—Hatch bent a left-footed shot right on frame in the 86th minute that Rowland deflected—but were unable to convert. Capitalizing on scoring chances has been an issue for Washington, especially in recent games—the Spirit are only converting 15.7 percent of their opportunities. But they’re backed by one of the league’s stingiest defenses, and Sullivan and Thomas agreed the team will learn from the loss.

“Every game, we want three points,” Sullivan said. “I think the last few games we’ve been a little sloppy in the final third. The final pass, taking some gambles on shots and testing their backs, not waiting until the end of the game to do so. That will be a focus for us this week.”

Added Thomas: “I think we’re learning every single game, learning as a team. It’s important to remember that (the season) is a marathon, not a sprint, and that each game we’re going to improve.”

The Spirit look to bounce back quickly when they travel to Orlando to take on the Pride on July 6 at 7:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington, and streamed on Yahoo! Sports and Monumental Sports Network.