The North Carolina Courage came dangerously close to dropping points against the Washington Spirit on Saturday afternoon even though Washington’s Paige Nielsen got a red card in the 24th minute. The game was supposed to be played on Friday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, but a persistent thunderstorm sat over the stadium for three hours, forcing the game to be postponed. The game was rescheduled for 4:00 p.m. ET on Saturday.
In the midday heat, both sides looked sluggish and there were only brief moments of excitement interspersed with long periods of lazy play by both sides. The early red card seemed to give the Courage an even bigger excuse to take it easy after what must have been a late night. The spirit, for their part, did manage to have a few very dangerous opportunities, but any time you have to play with one less player for more than 60 minutes of a match...well it’s going to make for an uphill battle.
An unearned golden opportunity arrives early
The first 24 minutes of the game involved a lot of fouls and not a lot of good soccer. In the 2nd minute, Merritt Mathias took a cracking shot from distance that Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe tapped over the bar, but it was probably going to be too high even without the assistance. Over the next 15 minutes there were 6 free kicks given by the head ref, but neither team was able to capitalize on the opportunities. Then, in the 24th minute, the entire game changed.
Kristen Hamilton collected the ball and seemed to be dragged to the ground as the Courage transitioned into the attack. No call was given, Hamilton got up, and passed the ball forward to Debinha between two defenders. The two defenders closed in and Debinha tried to slip through after the ball, but she went down. The foul happened outside the box, and the ref blew the whistle, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a red card. The decision was probably over the top. The foul was pretty soft, Debinha might have flopped, and it’s hard to know whether Debinha could have even gotten to the ball if she hadn’t gone down. It’s always tough going to a straight red, and Washington head coach Richie Burke was extremely upset about the decision after the game. The general consensus seemed to be that the Spirit were hard done by with the call.
The Courage just barely made out with a win
As a fan in the stands, it felt like that was the end of the match. The Courage are already a team that has the ability to wear down opposing teams, and it seemed like they should be able to put that ability to work against the Spirit. Just minutes after the red card, Debinha hit a shot off the post, and Hamilton had a solid chance inside the box, but Bledsoe made a diving save. It was only a matter of time until the floodgates would break...but they never did.
Over the next 15 minutes of the half, both teams were ineffective. The Courage were probably on the front foot, but they never made any good effort on goal. Unfortunately that level of effort would continue into the second half. The Courage are usually one of the most offensively powerful teams in the league, but from the 46th to 62nd minute, in a game where they had a one player advantage, they took just three shots. Zero of those shots were on target.
Then Debinha saved the day. Abby Erceg sent the ball up the left side to Jaelene Hinkle, who sent a long cross into the box. The ball was hit too hard, but halftime substitute Julia Spetsmark ran her tail off to get to the ball. She couldn’t head it on target, but she popped it back to the center of the six-yard box. Both Hamlton and Debinha made a play on the ball, but Debinha was the one who made solid contact and put the ball in the back of the net.
Ten the team shut down. Paul Riley admitted as much at the end of the game. He said they got to the point where nobody wanted to do the hard work, that they expected someone else behind them to do it. He said the two defensive midfielders, McCall Zerboni and Denise O’Sullivan, slowed the game down too much and let the Spirit get their feet back underneath them. And as a whole, they almost blew the game. Twice as the game ticked towards the end, North Carolina goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe was forced to make some beautiful saves.
So that was the game. It was one where the Courage took an excellent opportunity and barely took advantage of it. These were three extremely important points for the Courage as they continue pushing for a home playoff spot. If the team had played this poorly against 11 players they certainly would have lost, but on the other hand, they probably never would have played so poorly against a full squad.
These were three very important points for the Courage to win, especially with four starters away with the USWNT. Those four players, who are playing tonight against Portugal, will be back next weekend for an even more important match. Next weekend, the Courage will face off against Portland Thorns FC in Portland. The winner of that game will be in first place in the league and will have the best shot at winning home field advantage at the playoffs.