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Rose Lavelle dazzles in her NWSL return with OL Reign, but the Spirit gets the win

Spirit Coach Richie Burke, pictured in March, saw his team score an away win Sunday night against a familiar face. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)

Rose Lavelle’s first match back in the National Women’s Soccer League on Sunday was a reintroduction of her blinding ability and superstar qualities. The U.S. national team standout returned from England to join OL Reign, a Seattle-area club that already featured Megan Rapinoe.

It was fitting that her 2021 NWSL debut came against her previous team, the Washington Spirit, which traded her league rights last summer.

Lavelle dazzled, but the Spirit prevailed, taking advantage of Rapinoe’s own goal in the 52nd minute and claiming a 1-0 victory at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., for its second triumph in five days.

The sting of the trade seemed to have faded as Lavelle joked with former teammates and hugged Spirit Coach Richie Burke.

“I cannot see Rose Lavelle without a big smile on my face,” Burke said. “I was a little bit worried before the game that if she scored, I might celebrate it, too.”

In 64 minutes, Lavelle danced and twirled between defenders and embarked on swift runs out of the midfield. But as Spirit defender Emily Sonnett, Lavelle’s U.S. teammate, noted dryly, “I didn’t really see her score, so I guess we handled her with care.”

Anticipating Lavelle’s move to Manchester City last summer, the Spirit traded her to OL Reign for $100,000 in financial considerations and a 2022 first-round draft pick. When she would return to the NWSL was unclear, but given her abilities and marketing pop, OL Reign was willing to wait.

It did not wait long. This spring, after just three starts and one goal in English league play, Lavelle decided to return stateside, triggering another $100,000 payment to the Spirit. She trained with her new team for just a week before making her first appearance.

“I love Rose Lavelle and would love to have her with our club,” Burke said. “She was brilliant today and created all kinds of problems. We dodged a bullet for 60 minutes.”

The trip capped a demanding week for the Spirit (2-1-1), which earned a 2-1 comeback victory Wednesday in Houston despite playing most of the second half shorthanded after captain Andi Sullivan’s red card. Sullivan served her suspension Sunday.

The match in Houston had been scheduled for the D.C. area, but construction delays at Segra Field in Leesburg forced its relocation. The Spirit returned home from Texas via charter immediately afterward and flew commercial to Seattle one day later.

Without Sullivan, the Spirit turned to Julia Roddar and Natalie Jacobs to hold down central midfield behind playmaker Ashley Sanchez.

Sanchez, 22, was fabulous. Preceding the performance, Burke said she was mad at him and didn’t speak to him for a few days.

“She is the type of player who says, ‘I’m going to show you,’ ” Burke said. “I love that about her. She has got that maverick way ... and when you get her a little fired up and feisty, she goes and plays like that, which I absolutely love. Hopefully she is not talking to me again.”

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Although OL Reign (1-1-1) menaced for much of the first half, Sanchez provided the first genuine threat with a quick strike on an angled half-volley that required a leaping save by Karen Bardsley.

Burke made an adjustment at halftime by inserting Trinity Rodman, a 19-year-old rookie forward. With Rodman’s speed and prowess, the Spirit was markedly better in the attack and pressured OL Reign’s defense.

The payoff came on a 52nd-minute corner kick by Roddar. Bardsley misread the flight of the ball, coming off her line but failing to punch it away. On the back side, the dipping ball caromed off Rapinoe and into the net.

Spirit sub Dorian Bailey smashed an 18-yard bid off the crossbar after Sanchez and Rodman created danger deep in the penalty area.

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OL Reign’s threats were mild, the few clean shots not testing goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. Sanchez’s running header was saved by Bardsley, but at the end of the sequence, the U.S.-born English national team keeper appeared to pull a hamstring and left the match.

With desperation gripping the hosts, the Spirit kept its composure, slowed the pace and drained six minutes of stoppage time. It was a repeat of Wednesday, when an understaffed squad preserved a fragile lead.

“If we could win with 10 players,” Bledsoe said, “I knew we could do it with 11.”

The Spirit will make its first home appearance next Sunday at Audi Field against the first-place Orlando Pride (3-0-1).

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