Dealt one off-field blow after another across three heavy months, Washington Spirit players had parlayed willpower and resolve into their first National Women’s Soccer League playoff appearance in five years.
Ashley Hatch, the NWSL’s scoring champion, found the net 23 minutes into the bonus session, cleaning up a rebound for a 1-0 victory over the North Carolina Courage before 5,379 at Audi Field.
“It’s just trying to keep the train rolling,” interim coach Kris Ward said. “They are ‘The Little Engine That Could’ right now.”
Unbeaten on the field since early August, third-seeded Washington will play No. 2 OL Reign next Sunday afternoon in Tacoma, Wash. The winner will advance to the Nov. 20 final in Louisville against the Portland Thorns or Chicago Red Stars.
“We’ve been through it all this season,” goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said. “Every type of challenge, we’ve faced it and we’ve overcome it and we’ve come together through it all [and] relied on each other throughout the entire season and especially tonight.”
Bledsoe was a big part of it, matching Courage counterpart Casey Murphy save for save on an extraordinary night of goalkeeping. In extra time, Murphy blinked.
Spirit captain Andi Sullivan supplied Trinity Rodman on the left side of the penalty area. Murphy blocked the low shot but spilled the rebound to Hatch at the top of the six-yard box for a wicked smash into the upper-right corner and her 11th goal of the year.
“I thought it’s either going to go in or I’m going to be there for it,” said Hatch, who began her career with North Carolina and was the 2017 NWSL rookie of the year.
Rodman leaped into Hatch’s arms. After locking down defensively the last seven-plus minutes, the Spirit engaged in a full celebration in the center circle.
Aside from two forfeits for pandemic violations, the Spirit has not lost in 10 matches (7-0-3). Bledsoe has recorded shutouts in three straight and five of six.
“I think we’ve got destiny on our side,” Bledsoe said. “That always helps. And once you believe in yourself, it propels you a little bit forward. This team has the self-belief we are going to be there November 20 in Louisville.”
Ward has overseen the effort after Richie Burke was suspended in August, then fired over allegations of emotionally abusing players.
“The attitude and character of the players, in so many different ways, they’ve just continued to show up and continued with that momentum and that drive,” Ward said. “They’ve really embraced getting through things, through hard work, and getting through them together.”
The Spirit needed the collective effort to prevail against the Courage, which, despite being the sixth and lowest seed in the playoffs, created several dangerous chances through a set of world-class attackers.
Bledsoe repeatedly stymied the visitors, starting with a flying stop of Amy Rodriguez’s 33rd-minute bid. She was called upon multiple times in the second half, when a faster pace worked to North Carolina’s advantage.
“We got caught up a little bit too much in run and gun and made the game too transitional,” Ward said. “Once we got to overtime, it was about trying to gain control again.”
Long before extra time, though, Bledsoe received assistance from the right post, which absorbed a one-time blast from Brazilian star Debinha.
“I said a little prayer,” Bledsoe said, smiling.
The Spirit regrouped. The addition of Julia Roddar and Tara McKeown brought fresh legs, energy and renewed pressure. Washington buzzed with activity. Murphy stopped McKeown’s side volley and Dorian Bailey’s threat.
The Courage keeper was at it again early in extra time, making a leaping touch on Bailey’s rasping drive.
“I was just bummed she was stealing our show,” Bledsoe said.
Murphy made a breathtaking save on Rodman, who placed her hands on her hips in frustration and amazement. The wait ended in the 113th, when Hatch shattered the deadlock and sent the Spirit to the semifinals for the first time since the 2016 postseason, when it lost in the final.
The team’s mentality during trying times, Hatch said, “is everything. It’s something that has carried us through the season. We have overcome a lot of obstacles, so we have that belief that we can conquer whatever is in front of us.”
RED STARS 1, NJ/NY GOTHAM FC 0: In Bridgeview, Ill., Mallory Pugh scored on an eight-yard one-timer in the 61st minute as fourth-seeded Chicago ended Carli Lloyd’s spectacular career with a narrow victory over the New Jersey-based visitors.
Lloyd, 39, had completed her U.S. national team tenure Oct. 26 against South Korea in St. Paul, Minn. The Red Stars visit top-seeded Portland for a semifinal next Sunday.
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