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Spirit begins NWSL title defense in style with 2-1 win over OL Reign

Washington's Ashley Hatch celebrates her winning goal Sunday at Audi Field. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Washington Spirit did not have much of a chance to celebrate its 2021 National Women’s Soccer League championship, won last fall with an unfathomable run amid off-field turmoil. Players dashed off to international duty, and ownership issues moved back to the forefront. A proper bash would have to wait.

On Sunday, more than five months after it lifted the trophy in Louisville, the Spirit mixed the present and the past at Audi Field: It defeated Seattle’s OL Reign, 2-1, in its regular season opener, then commemorated last year’s valor with a celebration featuring the mayor, a musician and merriment.

“We definitely have been looking forward to celebrating with the community,” forward Anna Heilferty said. “We didn’t really get that chance last year. This is what we love — to play in front of a big crowd and celebrate with the fans.”

The championship banner, covering about 20 rows in the north end, was unveiled. Rings were distributed. There were fireworks and a performance by Grammy Award winner Ella Mai. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proclaimed Nov. 20 — which will be the anniversary of the 2-1 extra-time victory over the Chicago Red Stars — as Washington Spirit Day.

“It was excitement, everyone feeling like they finally get to celebrate this — and celebrate this with the fans,” Coach Kris Ward said. “Going down and talking to the fans afterward, I told them, ‘Look, we’re here for you guys.’ ... That’s a bond we’re continuing to build and grow with our community of wanting to be the very best representatives we can.”

The festivities took place before an announced crowd of 10,177, the Spirit’s largest since 2019. Washington, which is entering its 10th season, is scheduled to play six regular season home games at Audi Field and five at Segra Field in Leesburg.

The party capped a jolly day for the Spirit, which ran its unbeaten streak in competitive matches to 19 (12-0-7). The only defeats since August — when a coaching change, accusations against team officials and in-house turbulence threatened to derail not just the season but the organization — were two forfeits for violating the NWSL’s pandemic protocols.

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Ashley Hatch, the 2021 scoring champion, broke a 1-1 tie midway through the second half. Ashley Sanchez and OL Reign’s Rose Lavelle, a former Spirit standout, also scored.

Sunday brought the Spirit’s first regular season game under Y. Michele Kang, who became the primary owner in the offseason following a long power struggle with team partner Steve Baldwin. Kang presented the championship rings after the game.

The match was the first of two over four days between the teams. They will meet again Wednesday at Audi Field in the semifinals of the Challenge Cup, a preseason tournament with playoffs that spill into the regular season.

The teams’ rosters feature many of the NWSL’s best, but because of injuries and management of playing time, several did not start or weren’t in uniform Sunday. That included OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe and Washington’s Andi Sullivan, Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett.

Few in the NWSL are as prominent as Lavelle, the U.S. national team star. She stepped to the penalty spot in the ninth minute after Washington’s Camryn Biegalski took down Ally Watt in the box. Lavelle’s bid, though, was meek. Spirit keeper Aubrey Kingsbury, a U.S. teammate, dived to her right to smother the low attempt.

Last weekend, with the Spirit needing at least a point in the Challenge Cup group finale at North Carolina, Kingsbury thwarted a late penalty kick. It allowed her team to remain within a goal and ultimately score the equalizer.

After Sunday’s save, “the momentum just started to pick up and go our way,” Ward said.

The Spirit needed just five minutes to punish the visitors for their squandered opportunity. High pressure led to a long ball that Biegalski won with such heading authority that the ball flew untouched to Heilferty at the top of the box. Heilferty used a backheel pass to Sanchez, whose 20-yarder took flight and beat leaping goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce to the inner side netting.

“My first touch wasn’t that great, so I was like, ‘Crap, we’ll see how this goes,’ ” Sanchez said. “As soon as I hit it, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is probably going in.’ ”

Sanchez has scored in five of her past six appearances — three goals in four games with the Spirit and in two national team appearances last month.

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Tullis-Joyce (10 saves) repelled Washington’s growing threats, and in the 53rd minute, Kingsbury spilled Watt’s cross and Lavelle pumped in the rebound.

Washington regained the lead in the 66th. Sam Staab launched a terrific long ball down the right flank to Trinity Rodman. With Hatch making a near-post run, Rodman surveyed her options before serving a high cross with perfect placement to Hatch. Between two defenders, she sent a glancing header to the far side of the net.

Kingsbury was not seriously threatened down the stretch. And when three minutes of stoppage time gave way to the final whistle, the Spirit rejoiced over a bright start to the 2022 campaign before pivoting back to the glory of 2021.

“It’s a funny feeling because the final was so long ago,” Ward said. “But now being able to be here and revisit it ... it was just a really great day all the way around.”