Spirit fall to Sky Blue in penalty kicks
Updated: Aug 3
The Washington Spirit suffered a devastating loss in penalty kicks to Sky Blue FC earlier today, ending their 2020 Challenge Cup run. As the #2 seed, the Spirit were set to play the #7 seed, Sky Blue FC of New Jersey. The NWSL had its second game ending in penalty kicks in history with Houston defeating Utah last night, its first with the Spirit falling in penalty kicks to the now defunct Western New York Flash in the 2016 NWSL final, and its third today. This quarterfinal match was the Spirit’s first playoff appearance since their defeat in 2016. Sky Blue had not made a playoff appearance since the inaugural season of the NWSL in 2013.
The match began with significant changes for the Spirit, Lavelle on the bench to begin, Dibiasi on the bench, and Sullivan absent. Sullivan returned to DC to receive surgery on her torn meniscus and is reportedly doing better, providing comfort to fans globally.
With these changes, the game got off to a slow start, both teams had opportunities, but neither was able to capitalize. As the game progressed, the likes of Ashley Hatch and Kumi Yokoyama for the Spirit began to push forward as did players like McCall Zerboni and Naho Kawasumi for Sky Blue. Aubrey Bledsoe, Spirit goalkeeper stayed strong, referred to as a brick wall by her teammates, she was able to make show-stopping saves whilst inspiring her teammates to keep pushing in the absence of captain Sullivan. Tori Huster, another veteran leader and Sam Staab were also consistent on the backline, pressing forward which allowed Huster, in the right back position to get a shot on goal late in the match.
The Spirit maintained a high percentage of possession in their own defensive third, but at times were unable to convert this into meaningful offensive play. Kailen Sheridan, Sky Blue goalkeeper was strong as well, denying the Spirit opportunities in a similar fashion to that of Bledsoe. The Sky Blue defense was unrelenting and its midfield was steady, allowing minimal space for the Spirit to break through. In the 62nd minute, Lavelle subbed on for Natalie Jacobs and instantly infused energy and creativity into the game for the Spirit. The Spirit made additional substitutions as time went on, but neither side was able to convert their chances into goals.
At 0-0, the game went to penalty kicks, an identical situation to the night prior. With a couple of fantastic penalties from Lavelle and Hatch, Bledsoe then proceeded to make a save, putting a dent in Sky Blue’s conversions. Unfortunately, following Bledsoe’s heroic save, Staab failed to convert, evening the score at two goals and a save/miss for both squads. Zerboni of Sky Blue put her shot away, out of the reach of Bledsoe, but Crystal Thomas of the Spirit was able to make it even. Eddy, of the New Jersey side converted, and Sheridan was able to save Bayley Feist’s shot, leading Sky Blue to the quarterfinals and to victory.
Despite a crushing loss, the Spirit performed extremely well, displaying both talent and composure, as well as exciting play and courage in this Challenge Cup proving themselves as one of the best teams in the game. I was especially impressed by Sullivan, Feist, Hatch, Lavelle, and Yokoyama and cannot wait for the Spirit to return to action soon.
Photo: Washington Spirit