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Good and bad news for the Washington Spirit

Andi Sullivan went down injured, but two other midfielders stepped up.

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Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Utah Royals vs Sky Blue FC Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

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The Washington Spirit looked good in a win over the Houston Dash on Sunday, solidifying its second-place standing in the NWSL Challenge Cup group stage. But the Spirit paid a heavy price for fielding a strong team and playing to win the match, rather than resting stars — captain Andi Sullivan had to exit the match with a knee injury.

Thankfully, Spirit head coach Richie Burke says that Sullivan aggravated a persistent meniscus problem, and that she did not tear her ACL. It’s good news that Sullivan’s injury is unlikely to affect her readiness for 2021 preseason, but it still looks highly unlikely that she’ll be able to play in the quarterfinals.

There’s no direct Sullivan replacement on the Spirit roster — or any NWSL roster, for that matter — but Washington still got an indicator on Sunday that two of its young midfielders are ready for bigger roles. Sullivan’s midfield mates, Bayley Feist and Dorian Bailey, both turned in outstanding performances.

Feist scored the game’s only goal...

...but that wasn’t the only reason she was named woman of the match. She was the most active player on the pitch, turning up everywhere to press Houston into mistakes and offer a passing outlet for her teammates. Her touches map shows just how much ground she covered.

Opta via NWSL

While Feist did all the running, Bailey kept things ticking over in a disciplined role. She’s mostly played fullback or attacking midfield during her time with the Spirit, but Bailey finished with 100 percent passing accuracy during a rare runout as a No. 8.

Opta via NWSL

Bailey and Feist were both solid bench contributors in their rookie seasons for the Spirit, but needed some time to adjust to those complimentary roles. Both were the focal points of their teams in college and had to find their niche in the Spirit system. Going forward, it’s clear they’re both capable of slotting into a big match, with Feist as a runner and Bailey as a midfield metronome.

While neither of these players can directly replace Sullivan, Burke will be happy to learn that he can be more confident than before in his alternatives. Some adjustment in player roles and formation might be required in Sullivan’s absence, but the Spirit do at least have starter-quality midfielders in reserve.

Monday’s Challenge Cup games

OL Reign vs. Portland Thorns — 12:30 p.m.

I’m not sure what NWSL’s biggest rivalry will be like without a crowd, but given the circumstances, it’s clear both teams will be fighting hard to win. Portland will finish last in the group stage if it draws or loses, while OL Reign is highly likely to finish last with a loss. There’s no use in saving players for the knockouts if you have to play North Carolina in the quarterfinals. Both teams should treat this game like an eliminator.

Sky Blue FC vs. North Carolina Courage — 10 p.m.

It’s technically possible for Sky Blue to finish last if it takes a really heavy loss here, but that would be surprising. NC has locked up first place and might not even dress some of its best players.

Both games are on CBS All Access.