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Washington Spirit concede 124th minute equalizer to Western New York Flash, lose NWSL Championship on PKs

Spirit midfielder Christine Nairn summed it up best: "This one is going to hurt for a while."

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

There were thirty seconds left. The Washington Spirit were thirty seconds away from winning their first-ever NWSL Championship, on track to beat the Western New York Flash 2-1 until Lynn Williams scored a stunning equalizer, forcing a penalty kick shootout where the Spirit missed three of their penalty kicks and consequently missed out on what would have been their first-ever title.

In the penalty kick shootout, Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo saved three penalty kicks from Spirit veterans Ali Krieger, Diana Matheson, and Tori Huster. And so, despite the Flash missing two attempts of their own, the Spirit fell 3-2 on penalties after leading in both regulation and extra time.

"It’s written on all of our faces right now," Spirit midfielder Christine Nairn said. "I don’t think Western New York had a look on goal for much of the second half so to give away a goal like that with ten, thirty seconds left, it’s hard to comprehend right now. I don’t think it sums up our season at all. I think this has been a great year for this team and I’m proud to wear this jersey every time. It’s a shame our season ends up like that. This one is going to hurt for a while."

For the first time this season, Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra opted to play a 3-5-2 instead of Washington’s usual 4-3-3. Megan Oyster, Whitney Church, and Shelina Zadorsky formed a line of three center backs, with Caprice Dydasco and Krieger lining up as wing-backs. Normal starter Joanna Lohman was dropped to make room for the changes. After the game, Gabarra said he planned to substitute Lohman later in the game but was unable after he needed to make a first-half injury substitution for Dydasco.

The final got off to an energetic start with both teams scoring in the first fifteen minutes. In the 9th minute, Megan Oyster sent a long ball up to Dunn, who split the Flash center backs. Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo came out and tried to grab Oyster’s pass but Dunn corralled it and dribbled past D’Angelo. Despite an acute angle, Dunn guided the ball in to give the Spirit the lead.

Five minutes later, the Flash emphasized their strength in transition when Sam Mewis equalized. Lynn Williams stripped Tori Huster and with Ali Krieger up high, she sprinted down the flank and passed it to Mewis near the top of the box. None of the Spirit players stepped to Mewis, who cut it back to her right foot and converted her shot to the right post.

The Spirit suffered another blow soon after conceding the equalizer when Dydasco fell to the grass due to a non-contact left knee injury. Dydasco exited the game and was replaced by Kleiner at left wing-back. The second-year pro later returned to the bench on crutches and wearing a heavy knee brace.

For the rest of the half the action settled down, but the Flash continued to threaten in transition. Western New York also started to use the flanks more to exploit the space behind the Spirit’s wingbacks. Dunn frequently targeted the Flash’s left flank and beat left Jaelene Hinkle repeatedly. WNY forward Jess McDonald provided dangerous long throw-ins for the Flash but she and Williams were less of a threat than they had been in other NWSL games this season.

In the second half, the game slowed, with much less action than in the first half. The Flash switched to a 4-3-3 in reaction to the Spirit’s three center backs but the Spirit remained the dominant team. The three center backs succeeded at nullifying Western New York’s attack and the Flash seemed tired from an extra time game only a week before which negated much of their athleticism.

Yet while the Spirit controlled the game, they didn’t make the most of their opportunities on offense. Washington’s tendency to be caught offside - it happened twelve times during the game - was also an issue. In the 54th minute, Francisca Ordega delivered a nice service to Dunn but Dunn was ruled offside. Later, Christine Nairn delivered a good free kick but Oyster’s header went over the goal. Krieger then saw her hard shot from distance go wide left of the goal with twelve minutes remaining.

As the game trickled into extra time the Flash threatened more but were unable to reach the back of the net. With ten minutes left, Matheson replaced Banini. Gabarra intended for Matheson to come in as a substitute in order to provide a spark in extra time and possibly to take a penalty kick if necessary. The game remained deadlocked after 90 minutes, so like both semifinals, extra time was required.

One minute into extra time, Dunn scored her second goal, igniting cheers from the raucous Spirit Squadron and the mostly Washington-supporting crowd. Krieger combined with Ordega on the right flank before passing to the unmarked Dunn. Dunn sent her left-footed shot to the near post, past D’Angelo, giving the Spirit a 2-1 win at the beginning of extra time.

Throughout extra time, Dunn continued to be potent and the connection on the right flank between her and Krieger worked well. Dunn worked her way into the box many times, but neither her nor the other Spirit forwards managed to convert any of their chances. Towards the end of extra time, Mewis helped the Flash gain their footing in the midfield and the Flash started to be more dangerous up top.

With just over thirty seconds remaining from four minutes of stoppage time, McDonald, unmarked, sent a looping cross into the box from the left. The service left Wys with a difficult decision to stay on her line or come for the ball. Williams rose above her markers and headed it into the goal from about seven yards out, just barely beating Wys to the cross.

"My initial instinct was [Wys] didn’t need to come out," Gabarra said. "It’s good to have a goalkeeper that’s confident coming off her line, I guess she felt she could come off the line and win it. A lot of their previous crosses were of poor quality and had gone right into her zone so I think maybe, it’s the end of the match, players make mistakes when they’re fatigued and maybe that’s a mistake she made at the end there."

Only seconds remained and a penalty kick shootout was inevitable.

Abby Dahlkemper stepped up to take the first penalty kick and smoothly converted it. Krieger took the Spirit’s first kick but D’Angelo dove to her right and blocked Krieger’s shot. Both Hinkle and Nairn converted in the next round. In the third round of kicks, McDonald skied her shot, allowing substitute Katie Stengel to level the tally between the teams. Williams pulled off a cheeky penalty kick, sending Wys the wrong way with a short run-up. Huster’s shot was blocked, but when Wys saved Mewis’ kick, the Spirit had a chance to get level again. Matheson coolly placed her shot to her right but her international teammate D’Angelo dove and made the save, giving the Flash the championship.