After an abysmal 2018 campaign left the Washington Spirit searching for answers, the team brought in fresh faces, hoping they’d lead to different results. In the season opener Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, the club showed promise.
In Washington’s 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC, the Spirit received goals from two new additions, a strong sign the club may have left its offensive woes from 2018 behind.
Rookie defender Sam Staab scored in the 59th minute in her professional debut. Coach Richie Burke said he was shocked one of his center backs scored — and so was Staab. In training, Burke said he jokes with Staab, calling her a “big defensive lump.”
So during the win, Staab said to her coach, “Not bad for a big defensive lump to get a goal.”
Staab’s goal came after Mallory Pugh’s corner kick created chaos in the box. Early in the game, Washington couldn’t take advantage of set pieces, so “there was definitely frustration” in the locker room at halftime, when the game was still scoreless, Pugh said. Then Staab stepped up.
“Everyone was so bought in this whole preseason,” Staab said. “Everyone just really wants to win. Winning is a habit for our team now. It’s our new motto. It was just really great to get that first goal and start things rolling for the season.”
During stoppage time, Megan Crosson, a 24-year-old signed in January, sealed the result with a header off a cross from Pugh, a closing reward for a fan base longing for goals after the 2018 season that lacked offensive prowess.
“I don't want to defy our principles,” Burke said. “We want to play football at all stages and whatever time in the game it is at the time, whatever the score is, we want to score goals.”
In the scoreless first half, Washington took eight shots compared to Sky Blue’s three and dominated time of possession, but the Spirit couldn’t capitalize on its chances. In the first 45 minutes, Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan saved the Spirit’s only shot on target, from Meggie Dougherty Howard in the 34th minute.
Under Burke, the Spirit played with an assertiveness that created chances, leading to the win Washington hopes is the first step in a turnaround season, with those long scoreless stretches from last summer part of the past.
Along with Staab, two other players acquired in the 2019 NWSL College Draft started for the Spirit, and Paige Nielsen, a new addition from Australian club Canberra United, also made the starting lineup. Cheyna Matthews, who missed the 2018 season due to maternity, also returned to the field.
The Spirit have one more game before a few starters, likely including Pugh and Rose Lavelle, who missed this game with an injury, depart for next month’s U.S. training camp before the World Cup.
Last season, the Spirit staggered through a 2-17-5 campaign. The team scored a league-low 12 goals in 24 games and had a 13-game stretch with just one goal, so the offensive sparks in the opener came as a welcome improvement.
This matchup featured the two worst teams in the NWSL last season. In 2018, the Spirit finished ahead of only Sky Blue, which won one game. No other teams in the nine-team league have fewer than eight wins.
Since the Spirit last took the field, the club has created this new-look roster that played with poise in its first regular season test. Three of the four starting defenders are new additions, and Burke said he was “ecstatic” with his back line against Sky Blue.
“There are so many things that are different — so many new faces, coaching staff is different, everything is different,” captain Andi Sullivan said. “So on the field, it feels like a totally different team and it’s a fresh start. And it’s great to have a fresh start and a win.”
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