Mallory Pugh chases down a ball during Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Houston at Boyds, Md. It was the first game back for NWSL players who played in the World Cup. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

They stayed to cheer. Four hours after arriving in the heat, two hours after a lightning delay that lasted nearly an hour, a stream of fans lined the wall behind one of the goals at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds. At the start of the night, there were plenty of U.S. women’s national team jerseys, red and white. But by 11:13 p.m., only several dozen remained.

“Mallory!” they called out to Mallory Pugh, part of the World Cup champions and a star for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League.

“We love you!” a young girl said.

At the other end, Rose Lavelle, the U.S. women’s star and playmaker for the Spirit signed T-shirts, jerseys and posters.

The Spirit (5-3-4), thanks largely to the return Lavelle (who didn’t play) and Pugh (who did), had its first sellout of the season against the Houston Dash on Saturday night at Boyds. Washington struck first thanks to Jordan DiBiasi’s header, but surrendered two second-half goals in a 2-1 loss.

Cheyna Matthews (who represented Jamaica), Amy Harrison (Australia), Chloe Logarzo (Australia), Pugh and Lavelle were honored following the match with a brief ceremony. Lavelle, in a nod to her first name, received a bouquet of roses. And a rush of cheers.

She was the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, and she has become a 24-year-old star in the women’s game. She’s an exciting player who dribbles through traffic with a mix of speed and finesse. She was a standout during the World Cup run, scoring three goals. She was awarded the Bronze Ball as the third-best player in the tournament, though she missed out on the action Saturday as she recovers from a lingering hamstring injury.

On Friday, Lavelle was the center of “Rose Lavelle Day” in her native Cincinnati. Thirteen days after she scored a goal in the World Cup final, she made her way back to Maryland SoccerPlex.

There were dozens of girls at the match, many in jerseys representing American stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, as well as Lavelle and Pugh. Several girls said they took inspiration from the idea that the U.S. women brought attention to their sport, the quality level of play, and the inequalities that have become more glaring.

Heather Burdette, a 12-year-old soccer player from Frederick, Md., said watching the U.S. women dominant in the World Cup was encouraging. She wore a Lavelle jersey while sitting with her father, John, and a friend, because she had urged her dad to buy tickets for the game Saturday. She wanted to cheer for Lavelle, specifically.

“Ever since the World Cup I wanted to see Rose and Mallory,” she said. “I started to like Rose because she was new, and she’s fast.”

Pugh, a 21-year-old reserve on the U.S. national team, did play Saturday in the Spirit loss. In their return over the next few weeks, they will attempt to revive a once-hot Spirit club that’s now amid a hiccup, falling from first place to fourth in recent weeks.

Across the league, players have returned from the World Cup, looking to buoy a professional sports league that started in 2012. Although it has since struggled to attract fans, the league may capitalize on World Cup excitement this summer: The NWSL inked a TV deal with ESPN during the World Cup and landed multiyear sponsorship deal with Budweiser.

That the venue sold out was not at all surprising to Galen Yoder, a retired worker for the U.S. Department of Labor who lives in Chevy Chase. He had season tickets for the Spirit from 2016-18 and, after surveying the crowd, he put Saturday’s turnout up there with the biggest he’s seen.

“It’s really important that anybody can support these girls,” he said. “I think their technical skills are as good as the men.”

Asked about the strong turnout, Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke said: “I hope they continue to watch.”