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Washington Spirit players celebrate after midfielder Rose Lavelle scored the game-winning goal against the North Carolina Courage.  (Courtesy Photo)

BOYDS – Rose Lavelle joined the Washington Spirit before the start of the 2018 season, and since then, injuries and call-ups to the U.S. Women’s National Team have kept her from scoring her first goal for the club.

With seven minutes remaining in the Spirit’s match-up against the North Carolina Courage on Sept. 28, Lavelle danced around two defenders before unleashing a left-footed shot. The shot slid pass a diving Stephanie Labbé before entering the goal net. The Cincinnati, Ohio native rejoiced on the ground, surrounded by her teammates, celebrating the game-winner.

“Geez, it took me long enough,” Lavelle said.

Lavelle’s stunner capped off a miraculous second-half comeback by the Spirit, who were down a goal heading into halftime. For a short time, Washington’s playoff hopes stay alive after defeating the first-place North Carolina Courage for the first time in club history with a 2-1 victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,200 spectators during their home finale at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

Her game-winner comes after being announced to the FIFA Best XI, an international list of the best players of the year, and being flown out for the ceremony on Sept. 24 in Italy. Because of all the travel, team officials did not feature her in the Spirit’s 0-0 draw in Houston on Sept. 25, despite the striker flying back for the game.

“The travel was a lot,” Lavelle, who was making her sixth appearance for Washington this season, said. “It was a lot, but it was also no guarantee that that will ever happen again, so it was something that I had to go to.”

“Last year, she did not have a chance to contribute for us,” goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said. “This year, crazy things have kept her out like the concussion and more. But, she goes off to Italy, wins Best XI, comes back and that $7 million left foot got us the win tonight.”

Despite the win, Washington (8-8-6, 30 points) were eliminated from playoff contention on Sept. 29 when the Reign FC defeated the Portland Thorns 2-0 to secure the final spot. However, the Spirit’s 2019 season is a substantial improvement from last year when the club only won two games.

The opening five minutes rattled the Spirit’s confidence as North Carolina (14-5-4, 46 points) started with three corner kicks and connecting shots on target. Bledsoe saved a header, while the Spirit defense cleared the ball off the line to keep the match scoreless.

While North Carolina looked to possess the ball to create as many attempts on goal as possible, Washington was content firing back with counterattacks. Midfielder Andi Sullivan broke free early, but her shot sailed far left of North Carolina’s goal. Lavelle sprung forward pastthe Courage defense, positioning herself score, but Labbé grabbed onto the ball before the attempt.

The Courage’s relentless attack almost scored multiple times in the final 15 minutes before halftime. Strikers Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald and Crystal Dunn terrorized the Spirit defense with multiple crosses and shots, which were saved by Bledsoe.

In the 39th minute, Bledsoe tried to neutralize a North Carolina attack but ended up losing control of the ball. Dunn collected the loose ball and passed it to Debinha for an open net shot. The Brazilian’s chipped shot was cleared off the goal line by a last-second bicycle kick by defender Paige Nielsen.

Moments before halftime, North Carolina finally broke the deadline when Lynn Williams finished off a McDonald cross with a left-footed tap-in goal for her 12th goal of the season. The Courage finished the first half with 13 shots and seven corner kicks taken, leading to Head Coach Richie Burke to make changes on the offensive side of the team at halftime.

“I told them ‘that is the standard; that is a great coach and that is a great squad. And if we are going, knock them off their perch,’” Burke said. “And in the second half, I think most of our players took up that challenge.”

According to striker Mallory Pugh, the team switched to a more diamond formation, which would allow her to play off the ball with Ashley Hatch, Lavelle and Sullivan.

It would take 75 minutes before the Spirit got a chance on goal, and it was worth the wait. Pugh received a pass from substitute Bayley Feist as she entered North Carolina’s penalty area. As she released a left-footed shot, it bounded off a Courage defender before crashing inside the net. The 21-year-old’s strike woke up Washington’s attack as they bombarded forward on goal.

Washington’s aggressive attack would continue following Lavelle’s eventual game-winner until the final whistle. Their pursuit for victory is something that Burke would like to see from the team moving forward heading into next season. With Pugh and Lavelle planning to spend more time with the club before the Tokyo Olympics, the Spirit believe their future looks bright.

“We looked a little shell-shocked, and we did not get into the front foot until the end,” Bledsoe said. “Big credit to the crowd as they really energized us, and it was an incredible comeback victory.”

 

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