In front of a record 5,750 fans, the Washington Spirit returned to their early season dominance, beating the Orlando Pride 2-0. Estefania Banini gave the Spirit a 9th minute lead, while Francisca Ordega struck five minutes before halftime to help the Spirit to their fifth win of the season. Saturday night was the first game for an Orlando-based sports team since the horrific attack at Pulse nightclub last weekend and the two teams and fans all paid tribute to the victims and their families throughout the night.
The Spirit stayed in a 433, playing the following lineup on the night: Stephanie Labbe; Ali Krieger, Megan Oyster, Shelina Zadorsky, Alyssa Kleiner; Christine Nairn, Tori Huster, Diana Matheson; Estefania Banini, Francisca Ordega, Crystal Dunn
The Spirit started the game strong and pressured the Orlando backline, which struggled throughout the game. In the ninth minute, Spirit forward Estefania Banini collected a cross from left back Alyssa Kleiner and hit a well-placed shot past former Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris for her first goal of the season.
Orlando forced the Spirit to do some defending, but struggled to penetrate the eighteen-yard box. Pride forward Jasmyne Spencer looked like a threat up top, but outside of a couple free kicks, the Spirit limited Orlando's chances.
In the 23rd minute, the Spirit nearly doubled their lead but failed to convert several chances. First, Christine Nairn took a typical Nairn-style shot from the top of the box which bounced off Harris' gloves. Facing an open net, Nigerian international Francisca Ordega made a feeble shot on goal which defender Steph Catley cleared away.
Ordega was not going to settle for that miss, though. Minutes before halftime, Ordega beat Australian defender Laura Alleway with a bit of a shove combined with good footwork before chipping her shot over Harris, doubling the lead and scoring her first goal of the season. "When I saw the ball go into the net, it was like oh my god," Ordega said after the game, "I was so happy."
Moments before halftime, Steph Labbe made a diving save to deny Alex Morgan's well-struck shot and maintain the Spirit's two-goal lead.
The sell-out crowd at the Maryland Soccerplex joined both teams in commemorating the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub attack in the 49th minute. Fans rose to their feet, drowning out the hatred and bigotry of the attack with the sound of over 5,000 people clapping, united with love and support. The play stopped, not due to a command but the overwhelming need recognized by the players from both teams to join together as part of something larger than themselves.
"Today, if you look in the crowd, there's not Washington Spirit fans versus Orlando Pride fans," Harris said. "Today we were just one collective group coming together to celebrate the lives of the people who didn't make it out of Pulse and the victims' families. Today was just about honoring them and taking a few moments out of our game to pay respect and be grateful that we are still here, getting to do what we love every day. It was more than just about us. It was about bringing this entire place together."
"It was extremely emotional, I think. In those moments, you just took a breath and your heart went to all those people whose lives were affected, families, friends, the whole LGBTQ community. The biggest thing is giving your love and your prayers and sending your heart to them," Labbe said.
The Spirit continued to control the game and Orlando's backline struggled to contain the Spirit's attack. Matheson excelled as an attacking midfielder instead of being out wide and the triple threat of Ordega, Dunn, and Banini up front worked well. The team still struggled with playing too compact sometimes, instead of employing runs from outside backs and working the ball through the wings. Orlando earned a dangerous opportunity in the 65th minute but Labbe blocked Catley's cross. Each team threatened occasionally but the Spirit comfortably kept the Pride's attack silent.
Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra credited the return home and a stable training environment to the team's success after a tough road stretch. "I think it's rhythm and being back home for a week and training and being together," he said. "This is the best place to play in the league and it definitely is a factor, I wouldn't say it's the sole factor but it was part of a critical mass of things that went right for us and we were comfortable and confident to perform the way we did."
The Spirit host Sky Blue FC next Saturday at 7pm in the second of a four game home stand.