After winning four straight following the international break, the NC Courage fell 2-0 to the Washington Spirit on Saturday, July 10.
With Debinha and Lynn Williams joining their national teams after the Orlando game, Courage head coach Paul Riley was forced to make a pair of changes to his starting lineup.
Hailie Mace and Kristen Hamilton were the two players to come in off the bench, with Hamilton playing in the No. 10 role and Mace partnering Jess McDonald up top. This season, Mace has featured in all three of the Courage’s midfield and attacking positions.
“It's more of trying to find out where she belongs...” Riley said. “She’s a handful up front. She’s better around the net than she is deeper on the field. It is finding somewhere where she can help us and again I don't think she was a huge help tonight. I think Hailie will be disappointed with the performance. She’d been dying to play for a while and got in, but it's the first game and she needs time I think. We're going to stick with her and give her more time upfront.”
Other than some brief sparks from North Carolina in the second half, Washington dominated the majority of the game. The Spirit held 54.4% of the possession and outshot the Courage 18-10, with nine of their 18 finding the target, compared to just two for the Courage.
“We were poor, very poor in every department,” Riley said. “Defending, midfield, upfront, toothless in attack, average in the midfield, turnover after turnover in midfield, poor defensively, big gaps between the lines. Just all over the place. And all credit to them, they were brilliant. [Ashley] Sanchez was outrageous tonight; [Andi] Sullivan was very, very good, backline was good.”
Denise O’Sullivan said that Washington matched them in midfield, which made things difficult. Although Washington made it difficult, O’Sullivan said the Courage just needed to be better.
“I think when teams do that, we need to find solutions, to create more opportunities to create a better build for us to get out,” O’Sullivan said. “We just weren't able to do that tonight. We were off. And so yeah, I think overall, they were a better team tonight and we've got to put our hands up. It needs to be better from us. We need to come out there with all guns blazing and we just didn’t do that.”
Although she made a mistake leading to the first goal, Casey Murphy was outstanding on the night. Murphy made seven saves, including some absolute beauties, and kept the scoreline from being incredibly lopsided.
“[Washington] played some great football tonight and they played us off the park tonight,” Riley said. “It could have been six or seven if it wasn't for Casey.”
Washington struck first with Ashley Hatch slotting the ball into a wide-open net in the 12th minute. Murphy and both Courage center backs went for the initial cross and all missed, leaving Hatch to tap the ball in as it fell to her. At the start of the play,
“As a 6-foor-1 goalkeeper, I like to own my box,” Murphy said. “I didn't read the flight of the ball well, and was late to it. They were able to get to it before me.”
Prior to Hatch’s goal, the Courage had gone 286 minutes without conceding a goal, a stretch that dated back to the 2-1 win over OL Reign on June 19.
After the Spirit dominated most of the first half, the Courage started to build some momentum late in the half. Abby Erceg had two very good chances to equalize in the final five minutes, but the Spirit killed the Courage’s momentum with a goal in stoppage time.
Andi Sullivan picked off a ball in midfield and drove at Erceg and Kaleigh Kurtz. With Hatch streaking toward the Courage goal, Sullivan played an inch-perfect pass to get Hatch behind Erceg. Once behind Erceg, Hatch needed only one touch to get the ball past Murphy.
Although McDonald and Mace struggled to get things going in the first half, the pair showed signs of improvement as the second half progressed. Mace started to find some space behind Washington’s defense and McDonald began to drop in and pick the ball up a bit deeper.
While the game was disappointing overall, it marked a major milestone for Merritt Mathias, who became the fourth player in NWSL history to reach 150 league appearances. After tearing her ACL in 2019, Mathias made her return to the field earlier this year and has been excellent on the right side of the Courage’s back four since returning.
After back-to-back road games, the Courage will return to WakeMed Soccer Park on July 17 for a showdown with the Houston Dash.