The Washington Spirit earned their seventh shutout of the season last night, beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 at the Maryland Soccerplex. Estefania Banini scored her second goal of the season to open the scoring for the Spirit, and Katie Stengel scored moments after entering the game as a substitute in the second half to seal the three points. The Spirit gained ground on the league-leading Portland Thorns FC, who lost for the first time in 2016, while Chicago lost their third straight 2-0 decision.
The game started off pretty even and both sides enjoyed many chances. Chicago seemed to have the upper edge, but most of their shots were restricted to wider angles. However, Washington ended up taking the lead in the 20th minute, Christine Nairn started the move, feeding Banini the ball at the top of the box. Banini and Francisca Ordega ran a give-and-go and Banini's ensuing shot was just beyond the reach of Chicago goalkeeper Michele Dalton. Banini now has three goals in the Spirit's last four games.
Chicago continued to threaten on the flanks, with Casey Short and Arin Gilliland each challenging the Spirit's outside backs. In the 35th minute, Vanessa DiBernardo's header went just wide, keeping the Spirit in the lead. Ordega had a close chance just after that but she was called for a foul on Red Stars defender Katie Naughton.
During the second half the game started to open up more, leading to more dangerous chances for the Spirit, particularly through Ordega. Nine minutes into the half, Spirit forward Cali Farquharson sent a nice pass to Ordega who survived pressure from Gilliland and hit it back to Joanna Lohman, who fired wide. Kelsey Wys came up with a huge save for the Spirit in the 60th minute, denying a close-range header from Gilliland to keep the Spirit in the lead.
Katie Stengel replaced Ordega in the 73rd minute and immediately made an impact. Less than a minute after coming in, Stengel delivered a header off a Christine Nairn corner kick to double the Spirit's lead. It was sloppy defending from Chicago and after the game Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said, "We concede one on a corner kick because we just take a mental break, just like last week."
In the 86th minute, the Spirit countered quickly but Banini fumbled in front of Dalton, denying the Spirit a third goal. Chicago had a chance in stoppage time but the Spirit finished the game 2-0 victors, giving them seven shutouts in eleven total games played.
"We made a bit more of a positive step integrating our newer players in the back, but there's still a lot to work on defensively," Gabarra said. Despite holding a clean sheet, the Spirit struggled to defend on the flanks, a similar theme throughout this season. "They want to pin you to one side and that's when they're going to press and we've got to break that pressure and move it to the other side and we did a really poor job of that," Gabarra said. "We basically played right into their hands and we were turned over in those areas an awful lot of times and they beat our wide defenders an awful lot. It's something we need to be better at but once again, it's one of Chicago's strengths."
Last week, the Spirit played at an incredibly slow tempo in order to control the game against FC Kansas City. This week, the team played at a noticeably faster pace. "I think the tempo of the game certainly came from them as well," Tori Huster said. "They definitely put a lot more pressure than Kansas City did, Kansas City had a bit lower of a line to start with. I think having Franny up top helps us go forward and press the ball as much as we want since she's going to run all over the place."
As a team, the Spirit responded much better to their opponent's pressure than earlier this season. In their loss to Sky Blue and Portland, the team collapsed under the pressure, both defensively and offensively. Last night, the Spirit responded better to the pressure and their challenges on the flanks.
Next week, the Spirit travel to Kansas City to take on the eighth-place Blues. Kickoff is set for 7pm Eastern.