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Spirit holds off OL Reign in PKs, advances to NWSL Challenge Cup final

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Three days after opening the National Women’s Soccer League regular season, the Washington Spirit on Wednesday resumed preseason with a shootout victory over Seattle’s OL Reign at Audi Field. Yes, preseason.

But the quirkiness of NWSL scheduling was overshadowed by a Challenge Cup semifinal that ended in high drama. Outplayed in the second half, the Spirit managed a 0-0 draw before prevailing on penalty kicks, 9-8, in 10 rounds — twice as long as a standard tiebreaker.

Aubrey Kingsbury, the reigning NWSL goalkeeper of the year, was the hero, making two saves, including a spectacular clincher on Jess Fishlock, the league’s MVP last year.

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Each team made its first seven tries. Each keeper made a save in the eighth round. Each team scored in the ninth. After Sam Staab struck for the Spirit, Kingsbury reached high to her right for the winning save.

Kingsbury, who stopped penalty kicks in regular time in the previous two outings, also scored in the third round of the shootout.

“Every keeper just wants to score,” she said, smiling. “We have dreams. Usually we are all failed forwards.”

The defending league champions, who are unbeaten in 20 straight competitive matches since August, will play at North Carolina in Saturday’s final. The Courage won at Kansas City, 2-1.

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“This team wants to win trophies,” Kingsbury said. “We don’t care what trophy it is. If it’s five [versus] five in practice, I want to win. I know everyone else wants to win. Every opportunity we get to compete, we’re there to win.”

Because the final will conflict with the regular season calendar, the Spirit’s planned trip to Chicago was pushed to June 8. North Carolina’s match at Portland was rescheduled in August.

Though the Challenge Cup is a preseason competition, there is financial motivation. Members of the winning team will receive $10,000, and players on the second-place team will take $5,000, a person familiar with the plan said. The semifinal losers also will collect bonuses, which are significant in a league with a minimum base salary of $35,000 this year.

Because of a scheduling crunch, the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup has overlapped with the start of the 24-game campaign.

It gets weirder. The Reign was the top seed but couldn’t host the semifinal because of venue conflicts. So the match was moved to Segra Field in Leesburg, one of Washington’s two home fields.

That plan was then ditched on short notice in favor of playing in a more professional setting, Audi Field, which, despite hosting an all-day, non-field event, was able to accommodate the NWSL match.

The Spirit’s opponent Wednesday was the same as Sunday, a match won by the Spirit, 2-1, before more than 10,000 at Audi Field. Slapped together less than a week ago, Wednesday’s game drew an announced 3,015.

In the first half, the Spirit’s possession wasn’t as tidy as on Sunday. A poor pass in Washington’s end gifted a bright opportunity to OL Reign’s Rose Lavelle, whose low bid from 25 yards was pushed aside by the diving Kingsbury.

After intermission, Kingsbury touched Lavelle’s angled bid over the crossbar, and a delayed offside flag nullified Alana Cook’s apparent goal in the 63rd minute.

Kingsbury made an outstanding leaping save in the 77th, pushing Bethany Balcer’s clear 12-yarder over the crossbar. In the waning moments, Lavelle set up Balcer in stride entering the box for a low shot that narrowly missed the far corner.

U.S. star Megan Rapinoe made her 2022 debut, entering in stoppage time for the Reign. Kingsbury made another fine save, thwarting Ally Watt’s high bid.

Then deep in stoppage time, Washington’s Anna Heilferty made clear hand contact with Rapinoe’s redirected corner kick. The referee blew the whistle — not to award a penalty kick but to end regulation. The visitors fumed.

Rapinoe said the ref told her team that Heilferty’s arm was against her body, which would rule out a handball call. “The hand was out on f—ing Jupiter,” Rapinoe said.

“It’s embarrassing,” Reign Coach Laura Harvey said.

Because the tournament is part of the preseason schedule, 30 minutes of extra time were not played. In the shootout, Kingsbury and the Spirit kept their nerve.

“We were under it a little bit there at the end,” Coach Kris Ward said. “For the last 15 minutes or so, fortunate, yes, but also we’ve got Aubrey. The whole team knew that, too. … Aubs came up massive.”

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