NC Courage midfielders Debinha and Julia Spetsmark celebrate after Debinha's goal, which Spetsmark assisted, during the club's match against the Washington Spirit at WakeMed Soccer Park on August 3, 2019. The Courage defeated the Spirit, 1-0.

The NC Courage beat a player-down Washington Spirit team by a score of 1-0 on Saturday afternoon. The game was meant to be the night before but due to a prolonged storm, the game was postponed until the following day.

While the Courage was undoubtedly the dominant side in the game, a number of players looked slow on the ball and the team struggled to finish, putting only five of the team’s 20 shots on target.

“I left the board exactly the same as when I left it yesterday,” said NC Courage head coach Paul Riley. “Today it was more of a motivational talk than a tactical talk.”

The Courage was the better of the two sides in the first half, outshooting the Spirit 14 shots to two. The shot deficit was due in part to a 24th-minute red card to Spirit defender Paige Nielsen. 

The defender dragged down Brazilian midfielder Debinha on the edge of the box as she broke through the Spirit defense and towards the goal. Debinha then blazed the resulting freekick over the bar but the damage was done as the Spirit would be a player down for the remainder of the game.

“I don’t think it is a red card,” said Spirit coach Richie Burke. “If he is gonna call a foul then it's a yellow card because there is cover. If she is through to goal it is a ligament goal-scoring chance then it's a red card, I understand that but there is plenty of cover… Paul was honest enough to say ‘I think you got hard done by’, Abby Erceg a class international footballer tells me ‘your hard done by’. If football people are telling me that that's not a red card then I would say there is one person in the ground that has made a huge mistake.”

Just before the end of the first half, a very similar play to the red card occurred on the edge of the Spirit box. Midfielder McCall Zerboni made a darting run behind the defense and looked like she would get on the end of the pass but she appeared to be pulled back by a Spirit defender, but the ref did see an issue with the play.

Despite the wealth of shots the Courage had in the first half only three found the target and a further five were blocked by Spirit defenders. The final ball was also lacking for the home team in the first half with several crosses not finding the mark.

Riley went to his bench to start the second half, bringing on forward Julia Spetsmark for forward Leah Pruitt. In terms of position, it was a like-for-like substitution with Spetsmark lining up with forward Kristen Hamilton up top as a forward duo.

The Courage’s dominance continued into the second half with Spetsmark making her mark on the game in the 64th minute. Left back Jae Hinkle played an early cross to the far post where Spetsmark headed it back across the box to a waiting Debinha. The Brazilian then volleyed home from the middle of the box to open the scoring for the Courage.

“I was looking for the goal for the whole game,” Debinha said. “[Spetsmark] gave me a good ball and I was just in the right spot in the right moment. I’m happy for helping the team.

A major part of the Courage’s dominance during the game, and a crucial part of the goal,  was the play of both fullbacks, Hinkle (who got the hockey assist on Debinha’s goal) and right back Merritt Matthias. Both the fullbacks got forward throughout the game and created many chances through crosses.

“The two fullbacks were excellent for me,” Riley said. “The two of them delivered a lot of balls and we have to be better in the final third getting on the end of those balls.”

The Spirit nearly leveled up the score in the 78th minute but goalkeeper Steph Labbé made a brilliant double save to preserve the lead. The Canadian international made one save on the left side of the box before scrambling to the right side to make a second save on a shot from the rebound.

“Some moments of brilliance, I thought we played some great stuff at times,” Riley said. “But disappointed with the last 20 minutes of the match. The management of the game, the turnovers, the inability to just manage the ball in the last 20 minutes, it's just not like us.”

The win moved the Courage into first place in the NWSL standings with 28 points from 15 games. The team’s next game will be at the second-place Portland Thorns on Sunday, August 11.