After two hard-fought ties to start the season, the Washington Spirit looked poised to put an exclamation point on its quest to disprove the masses who picked the team to finish last this season. While the team has far more potential than many expected, the offensive firepower of Sky Blue FC was too much to overcome for the Spirit, playing its second home game, in front of 3,102 fans at the Maryland Soccerplex in Boyds, Maryland.
The Spirit got a crash course in how dangerous Sky Blue can be just 2 minutes into the game when 5’11" defender Coco Goodson's header off an early Danesha Adams corner kick got past Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to give Sky Blue the early 1-0 lead.
The team settled relatively quickly, as Stephanie Ochs soon pressed forward, bending a nice shot on goal that was reined in by Sky Blue goalkeeper Brittany Cameron, on for the injured Jill Loyden. The speedy Sky Blue tandem of Australian forward Lisa De Vanna and Kelley O'Hara, along with Danesha Adams up front kept the Spirit defense on alert.
An iffy backpass by Robyn Gayle forced Harris to play a dangerous 50/50 ball, warding off the on-coming
fright freight train, otherwise known as De Vanna. O'Hara, playing at forward for the first time this season, spent most of the game wreaking havoc on the flank for left back Kika Toulouse.
Harris was solid again in goal, amassing seven saves, with five of those coming in the first half.
A 26th minute foul called on Kendall Johnson, for taking down the Spirit's Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson just wide of the penalty area, was immediately followed by a caution issued to O'Hara just outside the penalty box on the free kick. Lori Lindsey's second free kick in as many minutes carried just over the crossbar, but the series seemed to change the momentum just enough to allow the Spirit to open up their attack. Nine minutes later, Matheson dashed up the right flank, sliding to connect with an excellent cross from midfielder Lori Lindsey, beating Johnson and putting the equalizer past Cameron in the back of the net.
Just before the half, with right outside back Ali Krieger pushed forward nearly to the end line, De Vanna took full advantage on a counter and cut through the Spirit midfield and defense with just Gayle to beat. Gayle managed to alter her path just enough to give Harris a fighting chance at a save on the close-range shot by De Vanna to hold the 1-1 tie going into the half.
But De Vanna wasn't done. Just three minutes into the second half, she ran down a ball on left side, drawing attention and then dumping off to an unmarked Sophie Schmidt in the penalty area. Schmidt put the goal away with ease, in what would be the game's difference-maker.
With only two shots on goal in the second half, the Spirit struggled to get any offensive consistency as much of the midfield had to frequently collapse back on defense. They managed a few good chances, the best of which was by substitute Caroline Miller, but could not crack the defense, giving Sky Blue the 2-1 road win and a 2-0 NWSL start. They next take on Western New York Flash May 1 in Rochester.
Falling to 0-1-2, there is no rest for the weary as the Spirit now have a week to prepare to host Portland at home May 4.
Corner kicks continue to be trouble for the height-challenged Spirit, both on offense and defense. They give up at best several inches and have struggled to both defend or score. Spirit Head Coach Mike Jorden seems to be shuffling the pieces to find the right solution. But what they really need is size.
While Diana Matheson had trouble getting into the attack early on, she is clearly the engine of the team. I don't expect that to change any time soon.
Meanwhile, McCarty has been really struggling after her game 1 goal. She has shown moments of brilliance (and speed), but seems to be most comfortable with her back to goal and making a quick turn to beat defenders. She'll need to connect better in the run of play. The team needs her pushed forward, running onto balls faced up in front of the goal.
I'd like to see some more playing time for Caroline Miller, who has come on as a late-game sub the last two games. I wouldn't even mind seeing her get a start with Ochs up front to see how they might connect.
Ochs is surprisingly efficient at dropping back in support of the defense, but I worry this is at the expense of offense too often. She needs to think offense first, defense second. That said, I am impressed with her overall and respect her ability to defend.
Krieger had to pick her chances to move forward from the outside. Her speed allows her to retreat quickly when needed, but its a shame she can't push forward more often, as I think she could be a trigger for the offense.
Toulouse performed admirably at left back, mostly neutralizing O'Hara. She made several strong plays to clear dangerous balls. She appeared to be fighting a leg injury of some kind and took a big knock from O'Hara on the offense end after a corner kick.
Harris is going to keep her team in most games, but the trio of Adams, De Vanna, and O'Hara were a lot to handle. I suppose it was good practice for next week's match against a loaded Portland offense.
This is a team that has played with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. The Spirit will need to find that mental edge, in spite of the loss, in order to stay in the game against the Thorns.