The North Carolina Courage are back to the pitch on Wednesday night as they take on the Washington Spirit in their second match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. Both teams registered 2-1 victories last Saturday with the Courage bringing down Portland Thorns FC and Washington besting the Chicago Red Stars. Expect some lineup changes for the midweek competition as both teams try to rotate players to preserve stamina in the thin Utah air. The Courage and Spirit were the only two teams to win on opening weekend, so this game should decide which team remains at the top of the table.
The Courage need to find their touch on Wednesday
The opening match of the tournament followed a common theme for the Courage. They outshot and outplayed Portland for most of the match, but it took until stoppage time for them to finally seal the deal. This is a team that tends to struggle with their finishing form early in the season, and that was on display on Saturday afternoon. Both of the goals scored by North Carolina were more about the beauty of the service than the skill of the attacker. In the end, the Courage did just enough to beat the Thorns, but they will definitely need to show a bit more class if they want to take down a tough Washington Spirit team.
In the pregame press conference on Tuesday afternoon head coach Paul Riley picked out four players who looked particularly fit and in form from the match on Sunday (Jaelene Daniels, Denise O’Sullivan, Debinha, and Lynn Williams) and mentioned a few players who are still working towards 90-minute fitness (Crystal Dunn, Kristen Hamilton, Hailie Mace, and Sam Mewis). Riley tends not to adjust his roster too much for midweek games, and this tournament providing five substitutes means that outside of a possible RB switch we will probably looking at a very similar lineup to the one we saw on Saturday.
Up front we will need to see a bit more production from the two 9s, Williams and Hamilton. The two had an opportunity to combine for an easy first goal when they had a two-vs-one opportunity early in the match against the Thorns, but Williams opted not to pass it off to the open Hamilton, and Hammy never really had much impact after that. I think she will see a bigger role in the match against Washington because she is an excellent player, but she only had ten passes and one shot in the match against Portland.
The bench will be a bit light tonight, especially up front. Jess McDonald is still out with a thigh injury and rookie forward Ally Watt suffered an ACL tear just 12 minutes into her NWSL debut on Saturday. Hailie Mace will certainly get minutes at the forward position, but we will probably need at least one more forward ready to step into the match.
Washington posses an exciting challenge
The Washington Spirit opened up the tournament with a solid win against the Red Stars. In head coach Richie Burke’s second season the Spirit showed a much improved offensive gameplan and the team took a big step forward in the maturity category. This is a team that was overly reliant on rookies in 2019, and it’s clear that the whole system has grown with that extra year of experience under their collective belts. From the veterans, both Ashley Hatch and Rose Lavelle were phenomenal in the attack and anchored the team from front to back.
The one big problem for Washington is that Lavelle and Hatch provided virtually 100% of the offensive production. The Spirit registered 2.33 xG in their match against Chicago and those two players, Lavelle and Hatch, contributed 1.99 of that total. They also scored both of the team’s goals. Now I don’t know if the Courage can efficiently shut down Hatch and Lavelle, but if they can there isn’t a whole lot of production ready to fill in the void.
On the defensive side, it will be interesting to see if Washington can match up with the sophisticated attack from the Courage. There will be a lot more overlapping and wide runs from the Courage compared to Chicago, and the Spirit probably need to play a more defensive formation with two holding midfielders to compete with the front four of the Courage. It will be interesting to see how flexible the Spirit will be in their formation with so little practice time and on short rest.
How to watch
Barring a quick change, the game will be broadcast on CBS All Access domestically and on Twitch internationally. The regular CBS broadcast of the game on Saturday registered 577k viewers, so there is some outside chance that CBS will decide to broadcast the game live on Wednesday night, but right now that isn’t the plan. Kickoff will be just after 10:00 p.m. ET, so make some coffee and settle in for a phenomenal second game of soccer. These are probably the two best teams in the tournament right now.