After a woeful first half, the Washington Spirit's second half improvements weren't enough to mount a comeback as the Spirit lost 2-1 to Sky Blue FC on Saturday night. Two assists from English midfielder Leah Galton gave Sky Blue a two-goal lead before the Spirit responded in the 77th minute with a header from Diana Matheson.
Sky Blue dictated the tempo from the opening whistle and left the Spirit reacting to them instead of forming a coherent attack. In the 8th minute, Galton slipped behind the Spirit backline and passed the ball back to Raquel Rodriguez. Rodriguez, from at least twenty yards out on the left side, fired a rocket towards the upper far-right corner, beating a diving Stephanie Labbe.
The New Jersey side held on to their advantage throughout the first half and the Spirit were lucky to only concede one goal. Galton excelled for Sky Blue, repeatedly getting the better of the Spirit's backline. The Spirit struggled to pressure the attacker with the ball and when they did manage to halt Sky Blue, they had trouble clearing the ball out of the defensive third. That left Spirit attacks few and far between during a frustrating game.
"I thought the entire team was way too flat. We did not do any of things that got us to the top of the table early in the year and we really couldn’t find a way out of it. We were taking to many touches, standing around, reacting, we weren’t organized in our press." Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said. "I can’t put my finger on the reason we were so flat and I’ll take the blame for that because we were not anything like we had been for the past eight games."
The Spirit had opportunities up front in the first half but none came to fruition. Crystal Dunn fed Estefania Banini a terrific pass in the 21st minute, but Banini's shot from the top of the box went well over the goal. Nearly fifteen minutes later, Dunn managed to penetrate Sky Blue's box but her shot was blocked by defender Kristin Grubka.
"There was no urgency, it was just standing around and reacting against Sky Blue, a team that’s going to work their butts off the whole game and they’ve got good players and a good midfield, they won the midfield battle in the first half," Gabarra said, noting that the midfield trio that often delivered wins for the Spirit fell silent tonight. Part of that was the Spirit's fault but also Galton and Rodriguez who exploited the Spirit's weaknesses. Frequently under pressure, the midfield couldn't create; the resulting turnovers often left the Spirit scrambling to defend in the middle third.
In the second half, the Spirit started to piece together a more coherent attack. Katie Stengel came in up top and while the pace slowed, the Spirit were able to hold the ball better and shift the point of attack more.The Spirit's back four were still regularly exposed and when Sam Kerr entered the game in the 63rd minute, she immediately tested the Spirit's defense. With her first touch of the game, the unmarked Australian forward volleyed Galton's cross past Labbe to double Sky Blue's lead.
After Kerr's goal in the 64th minute, Sky Blue began to sit back more, to coach Christy Holly's disapproval. The Spirit also continued to improve offensively and began to mount dangerous attacks. In the 77th minute, Banini delivered a cross from the left flank to Matheson, who headed the ball past goalkeeper Caroline Stanley. Five-foot-nothing Matheson was quite amused with her header after the game. "Estefi sent in a great ball for me and I had a lot of room. It was great. I don’t get to score many with my head," the midfielder said with a chuckle.
Gabarra went to three in the back following Matheson's goal, replacing Alyssa Kleiner with Cali Farquharson. The tempo and energy picked up and the Spirit threatened several times in the last ten minutes but to no avail. Matheson sent in a great cross, Stengel had a strong shot blocked, and Dunn had a stoppage time cross blocked, as Washington laid siege to Sky Blue's goal It was the rhythm and potency of the usual Spirit attack but it came too late to salvage a point.
"I think we settled down and realized we had more time on the ball than we though and just simple movement. I think in this game, two yards of movement makes a lot of difference and that’s what they were doing to us, just finding little pockets and finding the ball easily, " Dunn said. "We’ve clicked all season and obviously the first half was not such great soccer from us and things like that can dictate the rest of the game and the first half really cost us."
The Canadian internationals - Matheson, Labbe, and Shelina Zadorsky - depart for pre-Olympic training camp tomorrow, while the Americans leave later this week. The Spirit return to the Maryland Soccerplex this Saturday against two-time defending NWSL champions FC Kansas City, who currently sit in 7th place.