Another big crowd is expected to stuff Audi Field on Saturday for a Washington Spirit match, drawn by the novelty of the National Women’s Soccer League team playing in the District, by the appearance of several famous players and by the rush of enthusiasm since the U.S. national team lifted the World Cup trophy in France.
For Spirit Coach Richie Burke, however, greater attention brings heightened expectations. And with time running out to qualify for the playoffs, the Spirit must do more than attract fans; it needs to send them home happy against Reign FC, the Tacoma, Wash.-based club that features U.S. superstar Megan Rapinoe returning from injury.
“I would like to deliver a product that matches that kind of demand and interest from a spectator perspective,” Burke said. “And if we are going to continue to pull in big crowds, we’ve got to have a good product. I want it to be good.”
The Spirit (7-7-4, 25 points) was good the first time it visited D.C. United’s downtown venue three weeks ago, satisfying a sellout crowd of 19,871 with a 2-1 victory over the Orlando Pride.
It was the 10th-largest attendance since NWSL launched in 2013; eight of the other nine came in Portland, with Orlando’s home debut in 2016 also making the list (23,403).
Washington usually plays home games at Maryland SoccerPlex, a 5,200-capacity venue in upper Montgomery County with average attendance of 3,419 this season.
By early Friday, ticket sales for Saturday’s match had surpassed 15,000, a Spirit spokeswoman said. Expected attendees include other Washington pro athletes and several members of the Atlanta Braves, who are planning to walk three blocks from Nationals Park after their late-afternoon game ends. (Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson is dating Spirit star Mallory Pugh.)
The Spirit hopes to parlay the support into three points, which are vital if the club is to reach the four-team playoffs. Washington is in sixth place, six points out of the last playoff slot, but has played the fewest games in the nine-team league.
The North Carolina Courage (37 points), Portland Thorns (36) and Chicago Red Stars (35) are well positioned to advance, but the Utah Royals (31) and Reign FC (30) are within striking distance. Washington has six games left and Utah and Reign five apiece.
After Saturday, though, the Spirit is home once, against defending champion North Carolina on Sept. 28 at SoccerPlex.
The Spirit probably will have to make do again Saturday without World Cup midfielder Rose Lavelle, who has been recovering from a head injury suffered Aug. 17 in Portland.
As a contracted national team player, Lavelle cannot compete until she is cleared by the U.S. Soccer Federation. She missed the recent U.S. victory tour matches against Portugal in Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn.
“Rosie is going mad,” Burke said. “She is like, ‘Can’t I just play?’
“I said, ‘Rosie, I am not going to put you in harm’s way. I don’t care how many people are in the stadium. I don’t care where we are in the playoffs. You’re not playing if it’s your health. I’ll get killed. You’re a national treasure!’
“If they say ‘no,’ she is not playing a minute.”
The Spirit will have Pugh, who is working toward peak fitness and form after a leg injury sidelined her following the World Cup. She missed the first appearance at Audi Field but is slated to start Saturday. Burke suggested she would play 65 or 70 minutes, though she told the coach she wanted to go 80 to 90.
In the national matches against Portugal, Pugh logged 29 and 33 minutes.
Rapinoe is also rebounding from injury: In her first match since the World Cup, she entered in the 72nd minute of Reign FC’s 3-1 victory Sunday over visiting Orlando. She seems likely to play 30 minutes against Washington.
The Reign roster also includes U.S. national team midfielder Allie Long.
The Spirit has been dormant since its first D.C. appearance. Since then, there was a weather-related postponement in Orlando and a bye weekend.
“We’ve got a little mini-season,” Burke said, “to try to get ourselves into the playoffs.”
Reign FC at Washington Spirit
Where: Audi Field.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
TV: NBC Sports Washington.
Records: Reign: 8-5-6, 30 points; Spirit: 7-7-4, 25 points.