The Washington Spirit lost again Saturday, but the predictable outcome against the playoff-bound Portland Thorns was secondary to the location of the National Women’s Soccer League match, the turnout and the outlook for return visits next year.
For the first time in its six-season existence, the Spirit played in the District. And by introducing itself to fans who might have cringed at the thought of finding a way to Maryland SoccerPlex in upper Montgomery County, woeful Washington drew the largest announced home crowd in its history — 7,976 for a 1-0 defeat to the defending champions at Audi Field.
The Spirit (2-17-4) has lost 10 straight and is winless in 14. The scoreless streak reached seven games and 694 minutes.
Attendance at D.C. United’s new facility more than doubled the Spirit’s typical crowd, though in a venue that’s almost four times larger, it lacked the SoccerPlex’s intimacy.
“I love the SoccerPlex and the quality of the field is amazing, but there was something really special about the stadium tonight,” midfielder Andi Sullivan said. “There were moments where I felt like I could feel the electricity. So pumped so many people came. It would be great to come back here and play again.”
In a pregame interview, Spirit owner Bill Lynch said he would probably try to play “at least a couple games” next year at the 20,000-capacity venue in Southwest after NWSL teams are back at full strength following the Women’s World Cup in France. (Each NWSL side plays 12 home games.)
In the afterglow of the women’s soccer premier competition, “it would be a good litmus test for the D.C. market,” Lynch said. Through surveys and feedback, the Spirit will also have to determine whether the crowd for the first game at Audi Field was a novelty or indicative of potential bigger audiences than the ones coming to SoccerPlex.
Financial considerations will weigh heavily on his decisions. “I’m a budget-conscious guy,” Lynch said, “so the numbers have to make sense.”
On Saturday, the Spirit needed to draw more than 6,000 to break even.
Lynch also said he has had “casual conversations” with United’s investors about forging a stronger partnership.
“As time goes on,” he said, “it will make sense to do more together.”
Four of the NWSL’s nine teams are owned and operated by MLS organizations: Portland, Utah, Houston and Orlando. Another team, Chicago, is independently owned but plays at the MLS stadium.
The Spirit has been based at SoccerPlex since the 2013 inaugural season, averaging between 3,300 and 4,100 spectators annually. Team offices and practice fields are also located at the complex, located 30 miles from downtown Washington.
Washington has built a small but loyal base of support, one that travels from Virginia as well as Maryland, but the distance and lack of public transportation options have been obstacles to drawing casual fans from inside the Beltway.
The Spirit’s poor record has not helped the cause this year. With several young U.S. national team players in the mix, Washington was primed to contend for a playoff spot and put itself in position to challenge for a championship in the coming years.
However, injuries disrupted chemistry, the attack wilted and the losses mounted. Jim Gabarra, who coached the Spirit to the 2016 championship match, was fired this week.
The last victory came May 23 against Sky Blue FC, which is winless this year. Washington’s most recent goal was July 7 at Orlando, a first-half header by Ashley Hatch off a corner kick. It has scored once in the past 13 games, a span equaling 19 1/2 hours.
On Saturday, the Spirit fell behind in the 15th minute when Tobin Heath, a U.S. national team star, settled Hayley Raso’s cross, toyed with Taylor Smith and smashed an eight-yarder into the roof of the net for her sixth goal of the year.
Despite the presence of national team players Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle, the Spirit labored to sustain possession and mount many serious threats.
With one game left, the Thorns (11-6-6) remain in contention for a top-two finish and home-field advantage in the semifinals.
Washington will close the season next Saturday at SoccerPlex against Sky Blue. Because the game falls inside an international window, seven Spirit players will be absent: Pugh and Lavelle (U.S. national team); Hatch, Sullivan and Mallory Eubanks (U.S. under-23s); DiDi Haracic (Bosnia); and Rebecca Quinn (Canada).
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