Leesburg, VA., (04/09/2021) – The Washington Spirit will face the North Carolina Courage in the opening match of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Presented by Secret Deodorant on Saturday, April 10 at 3:30 pm ET at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, NC. The match can be streamed on Paramount+ in the US and on Twitch for international viewers.
This is the first official game for either club in the 2021 season. The last time the Spirit and Courage faced off was July 1, 2020, a match North Carolina dominated for a 2–0 win. The Courage won all four of their group stage games and finished first in the group stage table, with the Spirit a close second in the standings.
After winning the NWSL Championship in 2018 and 2019, expectations were high for a North Carolina team that finished the first phase of last year’s Challenge Cup undefeated. They were then shocked in the knockout round by the Portland Thorns and eliminated from the tournament following a 1–0 loss.
Later in the year, Paul Riley’s side had mixed results during the Fall Series, going 1–2–1 and finishing in the middle of the table. In four games, the two-time champions scored eight goals but let in ten.
Heading into the 2021 Challenge Cup, the team that won back-to-back titles and three of the last four Community Shields saw their roster completely gutted. Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper signed with Manchester City in the Women’s Super League (England); Crystal Dunn was traded to the Portland Thorns; Jaelene Daniels retired; Addisyn Merrick and Lauren Milliet were taken in the Expansion Draft; and starting goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé signed with Swedish club FC Rosengård.
Riley recruited heavily in the offseason; he brought in USWNT goalkeeper Casey Murphy to replace Labbé, traded for defenders Taylor Smith and Carson Pickett to fill in for the departures of Merrick and Dahlkemper. The Courage then signed experienced internationals Diane Caldwell (Ireland), Angharad James (Wales) and Havana Solaun (Jamaica) for defensive and midfield depth.
The Courage also hope that Hailie Mace will have a breakout season in year two with the club. Merritt Mathias, a vital member of the Courage’s 2019 championship squad, returns from a torn ACL that cost her all of last year. Despite a myriad of losses in the offseason, this is still a team led by a generational talent in Debinha, with a solid supporting cast of Abby Erceg, Kristen Hamilton, Jessica McDonald, Denise O’Sullivan and Lynn Williams.
The Spirit were one of the top teams at the 2020 Challenge Cup, earning a record of 2–1–1, with impressive wins over the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash. Washington was one penalty kick away from advancing to the semifinals of the knockout round but were stifled by Gotham FC (formally Sky Blue FC) goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.
In the Fall Series, Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke and his side finished in third place, taking seven of 12 points to finish in the top third of the table. The Spirit’s sturdy defense conceded an average of just one goal per game which helped them pick up points in three of four games. Following the Fall Series, Burke began reconstructing his roster for the 2021 campaign.
The moves began with the list of players who were waived, notably defender Brooke Hendrix and do-it-all forward Crystal Thomas. Several young players — Jaye Boissiere, Jenna Hellstrom, Meghan McCool and Jessie Scarpa — were not retained. The Spirit also traded Rose Lavelle’s rights to OL Reign ahead of the Fall Series — Lavelle is currently plying her trade with Manchester City. The other departures were Katie McClure and Katie Lund, lost to expansion, and Cheyna Matthews and Meggie Dougherty-Howard, who were traded to Louisville and Orlando, respectively.
To account for the offseason losses, the Spirit moved swiftly to reinforce the roster. USWNT regulars Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett were acquired via trades; Julia Roddar (Sweden) and Saori Takarada (Japan) were signed to bolster the middle of the pitch; and the Spirit selected five players in the 2021 NWSL Draft: Trinity Rodman, Tara McKeown, who stayed in college at USC, Anna Heilferty, Sydney Schneider and Mariana Speckmaier.
With an injury bug and national team call-ups decimating the team’s roster, the Spirit have signed three National Team Replacement players for the Challenge Cup: Chinyelu Asher, Camryn Biegalski and Cali Farquharson.
The Spirit played a total of three preseason games this March: a 6–0 win against Palm Beach Atlantic University on March 6 was followed by a 5–0 victory versus the IMG Academy on March 13. The final preseason tuneup was a home game at Audi Field on March 28 — the Spirit would Fall to Gotham FC 2–1 in a chippy affair.