Pitted against the league leaders in the National Women’s Soccer League on their home pitch, the Washington Spirit (4-10-4) fell 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage (13-5-0) this past Saturday. The North Carolina Courage was the team to beat as they’re at the top of the league with 39 points. The next closest team is the Portland Thorns with 34 points. Unless the Courage fall apart in the next few weeks, they will be the league champions of the NWSL.
The Washington Spirit held their own in the first half of the match. They looked confident. They moved with precision, holding the Courage to their half of the field. It was a match played in the space of 20 yards, a dangerous spot to be in for the Courage. The Courage held the ball more than the Spirit but the Spirit made them work to get the ball more than 20 yards up field before giving it back to the Spirit. Not that the Courage never invaded Spirit territory, but when they did, it was difficult for them. At halftime, both teams went to the locker rooms with no goal on the board.
North Carolina’s head coach Paul Riley said of his team’s effort for the first half “we have to make some adjustments and get behind them... they seem to be the better team to me.”
For the Washington Spirit, their bad luck with injuries and illness continued to put strain on the team. At the end of halftime, Estelle Johnson did not report back to the pitch. She was replaced with Alyssa Kleiner. Johnson was reported to be suffering from the ill effects of extreme exertion in high heat and humidity, and stayed in the locker room for treatment.
At the start of the second half, Kleiner was brought in with minimal notice and barely, if any, warm up time. The Courage reported to the pitch with an obvious mission to turn the match in their favor. The second half opened with a quicker pace by the Courage.
Within the first minute of the second half, the Courage had moved the ball behind the Spirit defense. All four of the Spirit defenders were in position as the Courage attack came down the right side of the field. Kristen Hamilton of the Courage right footed a cross past three of four Spirit players in defensive positions along the front of the net. Kliener, the fourth person, got enough of the inside of her left foot on the ball to deflect its path, but she unintentionally directed the ball to the feet of Carolina’s Ashley Hatch. Hatch did not hesitate to collect the ball and fire the shot that scored the first goal of the match, putting the Courage in the lead, 1-0 in the 46th minute.
Cali Farquharson who substituted in for Havana Solaun at minute 67 was the next victim of a defensive play that went awry. It started with a yellow card caution at minute 82 against Farquharson. Two minutes later on a Courage corner kick, the Spirit’s keeper attempted to punch a well-positioned service out of the path to the net. The missed ball went right to Farquharson at an awkward height. The question: kick it or head it?
Farquharson headed the ball in an attempt to clear it away from the net. Instead, it went straight at teammate Kassey Kallman, who had no time to react as the ball hit her dead on in the face, ricocheting into the back of the net with no further touches.
Kallman’s reaction was the only one there could be after that shot to her head. She fell to the ground clutching her face in pain. It was a double whammy as she suffered the pain of taking a full throttle ball to the face and the pain of that ball scoring an own goal. The final score at the end of the match was 2-0, in favor of the Courage.
Kudos to rookie player Meggie Dougherty Howard, an attacking midfielder who was everywhere she needed to be for the match. She played one of her best games this season. The Spirit media office reports that she made team high 44 passes, 34 of them on the attacking side of the field. She was effective at handling the ball and challenging the opposition.
Congratulations also to team captain Shelina Zadorsky. One of the reasons the Spirit did not lose by more points was due once again to Shelina’s efforts. The team has come to expect above-average play from her, which has become the new average for her. At this match, Zadorsky was playing hurt. I say hurt because I once heard a football coach ask a player, “Are you hurt or injured? If you are injured you are out, if you are hurt, get back in there.” Zadorsky was, at minimum, hurt. She played with a limp for most of the second half. Even in obvious pain, she managed her position.
On Sunday, following the match, Kristie Mewis was traded from the Spirit to the Chicago Red Stars. The Spirit got one of two first round picks the Red Stars had for the 2018 draft. Specifically, they got the higher of the first round draft picks from the Red Stars so the Spirit gets to pick before them.
The next two home games will be on Aug. 26 against the Red Stars and four days later against the Courage on Aug. 30, but there’s no longer a question of whether the Spirit will make the playoffs this year. That vessel has gone out with the tide.