Finally, someone broke the stalemate. But it was the visiting Chicago Red Stars who struck first, leaving the Washington Spirit desperate to even the score.
For weeks, Spirit players and first-year coach Richie Burke emphasized how they have pushed opposing defenses into their own territory. That’s not the problem. Where the Spirit has struggled time and again is in the final third of the field, on the last leg of long runs. So late in the match, Burke yelled to his defense: “Press! Press!”
And still nothing. The Spirit couldn’t initiate and convert, and it was left with a 1-0 loss Saturday night at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
Washington has just one win and two ties in its past eight matches and has lost three in a row at home. Saturday’s defeat carried a greater sting because the Spirit (6-6-3) entered play fifth in the National Women’s Soccer League, and it has left itself with little room for error in the season’s final nine games. Only the top four teams in the standings quality for the playoffs.
The Spirit had won four in a row earlier this summer, rising to first place in early June. But it has slid since largely because of its play in the final third, despite the return of U.S. women’s national team players Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, the latter of whom did not play Saturday because of a hip injury.
“Movement, timing, quality of service — there’s a lot of different things that we’ve not done,” Burke said. “We’ve watched countless video and worked on movements. . . . We’re looking for that final piece. We’ll keep working and try to get it done.”
In the first half, neither team generated many chances: There were only three shots on target combined. In the 25th minute, Spirit forward Ashley Hatch just missed on a left-footed shot from inside the box. Otherwise, the Spirit didn’t challenge Chicago’s defense.
In the 27th minute, Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe recorded a nifty save, stymieing a point-blank shot. The standing-room-only crowd, by far the biggest of the season, erupted, and an “Aubrey Bledsoe!” chant rang out. Maybe that would jolt Washington into an offensive push.
It did not. In the 60th minute, Lavelle had one of her team’s better chances. The 24-year-old playmaker, who scored in the Women’s World Cup title-game win against the Netherlands, displayed her speed by driving into the ball. She connected well with it, and her shot appeared headed for the upper part of the goal. But it was blocked by keeper Alyssa Naeher, Lavelle’s World Cup teammate, sending the crowd into a collective exhale.
“That’s the hardest part: the final product,” Spirit captain Andi Sullivan said.
The difference came in the 65th minute, when Chicago’s Casey Short found Yuki Nagasato, a top talent who helped Japan beat the United States in the 2011 World Cup final. Nagasato, positioned in front of the goal, thundered a strong header to the back of the net. Burke placed his hands behind his back, then he clapped them forcefully and yelled a few instructions.
The lone goal of the night had less to do with Bledsoe than it did with Nagasato’s placement: She tucked her header in the right corner of the net. Opposing coaches have heaped praise on Bledsoe, 27, saying she could earn a spot on the U.S. national team for the 2023 World Cup. She’s that good, some say, because not only does she anticipate where shots may go, she has the length and quickness to fend off difficult shots.
Bledsoe and the Spirit defense, even when shorthanded, have thrived in recent weeks. Again, it was the lack of offensive output that cost the Spirit.
“I’m not sure we’ve gotten bad luck or no luck,” Burke said with a chuckle. “We’ve been on the wrong end of these one-goal games, and it’s disappointing.”
The Spirit plays Saturday at Portland, then returns home Aug. 21 to host Utah before it welcomes Orlando on Aug. 24 at D.C. United’s Audi Field. As the postseason looms, the Spirit knows it must course-correct before it’s too late.