The Washington Spirit came into Chicago with a chance to secure the NWSL Shield against the Red Stars tonight, but the Spirit dug themselves into a three-goal hole. Crystal Dunn's second half goal couldn't make up the deficit, with the Spirit closing the regular season on a losing note. Now the Spirit's playoff seed - and the fate of the NWSL Shield - depends upon whether the Portland Thorns pick up at least a point against Sky Blue tomorrow.
Christen Press and the Red Stars attack challenged the Spirit from the outset, with Press scoring the opening goal in the sixth minute. Vanessa DiBernardo played a long pass from midfield that split Estelle Johnson and Caprice Dydasco. Press ran onto the ball, cut around Johnson, and buried it to the far post.
The Spirit's defense woes were particularly notable since Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra elected to bench Megan Oyster once again in favor of Whitney Church. Church is more suited for right back, and Oyster's pace and positioning are key to the Spirit's backline. This has become the normal lineup, though, even as results when Oyster was benched in previous games weren't favorable.
Ten minutes later, Dunn managed a shot from the far side of the box but Red Stars goalkeeper Michele Dalton made the save to keep it 1-0. When the Spirit kept the play simple and quick, the team moved the ball well and created opportunities on offense. Other times, the Red Stars were able to force turnovers and make the Spirit vulnerable defensively on the flanks.
DiBernardo was essential to Chicago's second goal as well, passing it to Sofia Huerta. Huerta laid it off to Cara Walls, who slid her shot past Kelsey Wys. In addition to the lack of pressure on Walls and the space inside the box, the Spirit also gave the Red Stars more than enough space in the midfield to initiate the attack.
Press had another strong chance in the 36th minute, sprinting fifty yards down the field with the ball and evading a handful of Spirit players before her shot went straight to Wys. Dunn remained the Spirit's bright spot, nearly scoring in the 41st minute only to miss just wide.
Chicago extended its lead to three goals just a minute into the first half when Huerta scored a goal from an improbable angle. Huerta took the ball down the right flank after the Spirit lost the ball in the midfield. Huerta, around ten yards from the endline and on the far right side of the box delivered a curling shot that sailed into the top right corner, making the score 3-0 in the 46th minute.
Dunn immediately reduced the lead with her second goal of the season. Right after play restarted, Dunn dribbled to the top of the box and slipped a shot between two Red Stars defenders and past Dalton.
The Red Stars continued to challenge the Spirit's backline in the second half and Huerta earned another dangerous shot in the 54th minute. Francesca Ordega and Cheyna Williams both entered the game at the hour mark but the additional speed didn't lead to any more Spirit goals. Huster had two shots in quick succession, one a long distance shot and the other a header off a corner kick but Dalton denied her shot. Nairn earned a free kick in the 76th minute but the Spirit continued to trail Chicago.
Estefania Banini returned from injury and entered as a substitute to play the final ten minutes but the Spirit forwards suffered another injury blow when Williams went down in the final minutes and was stretchered off the field.
The Spirit can still take the NWSL Shield, but the loss makes it unlikely. The Thorns just need a tie tomorrow against seventh place Sky Blue, who they've already beaten once this season. Since Chicago won and the Western New York Flash won as well, the Spirit will face the Flash if the Thorns lose tomorrow or Chicago in the event of the Thorns gaining a point.
Regardless, the Spirit are set to host a semifinal at the Maryland Soccerplex this Friday. The match will be televised on Fox Sports 1 and kickoff is set for 8pm.