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North Carolina Courage

Washington Spirit hold onto playoff hopes with 2-1 win over North Carolina Courage

BOYDS, Md.–Rose Lavelle’s first goal in a Washington Spirit jersey kept her team’s playoff hopes alive. The Spirit took down No. 1 North Carolina Courage 2-1 Saturday in front of a sellout crowd at the Maryland SoccerPlex. 

“It was an incredible win. It was probably one of the biggest wins of my career,” goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said. “The Courage is an incredible team. Year after year they just dominate the league.”

The Spirit completed a comeback against North Carolina with a resilient defense and a pair of second half goals in its final home game of the season. Goals from World Cup teammates Mallory Pugh and Lavelle gave the Spirit its first-ever victory against the Courage after a tough week on the road.

“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Lavelle said. “There have been a lot of games that haven’t gone our way this season. To now be on the other end of it, it’s pretty nice.”

In the 85th minute, the spark of postseason hope flourished into a fire as Lavelle broke the 1-1 tie. With a pass from substitute Ari Ship, Lavelle paused before dribbling past defender Abby Dahlkemper. Lavelle beat her national team teammate and sent a low ball past diving goalkeeper Steph Labbé. 

“Ari did a great job. She came on and had such an impact,” Lavelle said. “I was able to get the shot off, but I think Ari did all of the work.”

In any other season, Lavelle would likely be a star leading the Spirit. This year, with national team duty and a slew of injuries, Lavelle has been limited to 450 minutes. 

“Rose is a special player,” coach Richie Burke said. “It’s tough for me as a coach, as it is for us as spectators, to see it here in full flow when we have missed it most of the season. It is a little bit difficult. I think Rosey would be the first to say to you, because she is very honest, she is capable of scoring goals like what we saw in the World Cup final. She is a better player and she showed it tonight.”

The first-place Courage did not make it easy for the Spirit. Known for its high-pressing style, North Carolina started the game against the Spirit on the front foot. North Carolina earned two of its seven first-half corner kicks three minutes into the game. The first was softly headed into the arms of Bledsoe and the second clanked off the post. Overall, North Carolina dominated the first half with 61% possession and 13 shots to the Spirit’s two. 

The suffocating attack of North Carolina left the Spirit no room to play out of the back. Instead, Washington took advantage of the counter attack opportunities. Captain Andi Sullivan had a chance in the ninth minute on a breakaway with Cheyna Matthews running parallel. Sullivan hit the ball awkwardly from about 25 yards out on goal, but the ball went wide. The Courage’s defensive midfielders, Denise O’Sullivan and McCall Zerboni, successfully shut down any cross attempts Sullivan tried. 

Defensively, the Spirit weathered the barrage of attacking chances from North Carolina and almost held the league-leaders off through the first half, including a very close call in the 32nd minute. Midfielder Debinha’s close-range shot was poked out of danger by a sliding Bledsoe. Midfielder Crystal Dunn rocketed the rebound toward goal, but defender Paige Nielsen had other ideas. With her back to the incoming ball, Nielson cleared the shot off of the line. 

“Paige biked it off,” Bledsoe said. “I wanted to give her a hug right then, but we were still under pressure, so I gave her one at halftime. I will probably owe her steak dinner or something.”

Courage leading goal scorer, Lynn Williams, finally found the back of the net minutes before the whistle for halftime. As the seconds ticked away, forward Jess McDonald streaked down the right side. At the touchline, McDonald crossed to Williams. Williams just needed a low touch to evade Bledsoe for the opening goal. 

The Courage didn’t let up pressure after the break. In the 62nd minute, Dunn took a hard shot that forced Bledsoe to make an acrobatic save to push the ball up and out of danger. Bledsoe ended the game with seven saves. 

“They took advantage of us, especially in the outside areas,” Burke said. “If I was to share with you what was said at halftime, I think I might get arrested. The paint was coming off the walls. I told them there was a crowd here that needed to be entertained.” 

The Spirit responded by taking advantage of the few opportunities North Carolina gave. And in the 75th minute, Pugh found the equalizer. Midfielder Bayley Feist opened up the box with a pass wide. Pugh, who was playing while sick, sprinted to the ball to force a deflected shot past former Spirit goalkeeper Labbé.

“I did not feel well today,” Pugh said.  “I do not feel well right now, but I have a job to do and we are still trying to get to playoffs.”

The crowd of 5,200 fans roared to life, willing the Spirit to a win with Lavelle’s game-winning goal. 

“[The Courage] were knocking on the door the whole game, but after Mal scored that first goal it gave us a lot of energy,” Lavelle said. “The crowd here was incredible.”

With the win, and a loss for the Utah Royals against the Chicago Red Stars, the Spirit still has a chance at the postseason. They will need to win the final two games of the season away against the Orlando Pride and Portland Thorns to mathematically remain in the fight. 

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